Ku Klux Klan

Ku Klux Klan in the United States

The Birth of a Nation in relation to Crime and Race

The Birth of a Nation is included in the Encyclopedia of Race and Crime (1), beginning with: The year 1915 marked the premiere of the film The Birth of a Nation. The film was unprecedented for its time and represented a new milestone in filmmaking and presentation, replete with an orchestral score. The movie not only ushered in a new theatergoing experience but also set the mark for many silent films to come. Though theatergoers were charged an unheard-of $2 to see the film, the admission fee was quite minimal compared to the production cost of the film, which was estimated at $110,000—the highest of its time and for many years to come. The response to this film was parallel only to its production cost. In addition to the cost and epic proportions of the film, a storm of criticism and violence ensued, and drums were beating for the return of the Ku Klux Klan. (…)

The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) is the most infamous racist organization to exist in the United States, in addition to being the first terrorist group to operate in America. With an ideology borne of White supremacy, this organization has often used violence and acts of intimidation, such as cross burnings and lynching, to harass those social or ethnic groups they deem inferior to the “White, Christian race.” For more than a century, the KKK has engaged in a campaign of racist violence and intimidation throughout the United States. The Klan was formed during the Reconstruction era in May 1866, during which time the Northern states attempted to resolve those political, economic, and social issues that arose in the process of reinstating the Southern states into the Union. (1)


Ku Klux Klan, the name of an American secret association of Southern whites united for self-protection and to oppose the Reconstruction measures of the United States Congress, 1865-1876. The name is generally applied not only to the order of Ku Klux Klan, but to other similar societies that existed at the same time, such as the Knights of the White Camelia, a larger order than the Klan; the White Brotherhood; the White League; Pale Faces; Constitutional Union Guards; Black Cavalry; White Rose; The ’76 Association; and hundreds of smaller societies that sprang up in the South after the Civil War. The object was to protect the whites during the disorders that followed the Civil War, and to oppose the policy of the North towards the South, and the result of the whole movement was a more or less successful revolution against the Reconstruction and an overthrow of the governments based on negro suffrage. It may be compared in some degree to such European societies as the Carbonara, Young Italy, the Tugendbund, the Confréries of France, the Freemasons in Catholic countries, and the Vehmgericht.

The most important orders were the Ku Klux Klan and the Knights of the White Camelia. The former began in 1865 in Pulaski, Tennessee, as a social club of young men. It had an absurd ritual and a strange uniform. The members accidentally discovered that the fear of it had a great influence over the lawless but superstitious blacks, and soon the club expanded into a great federation of regulators, absorbing numerous local bodies that had been formed in the absence of civil law and partaking of the nature of the old English neighbourhood police and the ante-bellum slave patrol. The White Camelia was formed in 1867 in Louisiana and rapidly spread over the states of the late Confederacy. The period of organization and development of the Ku Klux movement was from 1865 to 1868; the period of greatest activity was from 1868 to 1870, after which came the decline.

The various causes assigned for the origin and development of this movement were: the absence of stable government in the South for several years after the Civil War; the corrupt and tyrannical rule of the alien, renegade and negro, and the belief that it was supported by the Federal troops which controlled elections and legislative bodies; the disfranchisement of whites; the spread of ideas of social and political equality among the negroes; fear of negro insurrections; the arming of negro militia and the disarming of the whites; outrages upon white women by black men; the influence of Northern adventurers in the Freedmen’s Bureau (q.v.) and the Union League (q.v.) in alienating the races; the humiliation of Confederate soldiers after they had been paroled—in general, the insecurity felt by Southern whites during the decade after the collapse of the Confederacy.

In organization the Klan was modelled after the Federal Union. Its Prescript or constitution, adopted in 1867, and revised in 1868, provided for the following organization: The entire South was the Invisible Empire under a Grand Wizard, General N. B. Forrest; each state was a Realm under a Grand Dragon; several counties formed a Dominion under a Grand Titan; each county was a Province under a Grand Giant; the smallest division being a Den under a Grand Cyclops. The staff officers bore similar titles, relics of the time when the order existed only for amusement: Genii, Hydras, Furies, Goblins, Night Hawks, Magi, Monks and Turks. The private members were called Ghouls. The Klan was twice reorganized, in 1867 and in 1868, each time being more centralized; in 1869 the central organization was disbanded and the order then gradually declined. The White Camelia with a similar history had a similar organization, without the queer titles. Its members were called Brothers and Knights, and its officials Commanders.

The constitutions and rituals of these secret orders have declarations of principles, of which the following are characteristic: to protect and succour the weak and unfortunate, especially the widows and orphans of Confederate soldiers; to protect members of the white race in life, honour and property from the encroachments of the blacks; to oppose the Radical Republican party and the Union League; to defend constitutional liberty, to prevent usurpation, emancipate the whites, maintain peace 943 and order, the laws of God, the principles of 1776, and the political and social supremacy of the white race—in short, to oppose African influence in government and society, and to prevent any intermingling of the races.

During the Reconstruction the people of the South were divided thus: nearly all native whites (the most prominent of whom were disfranchised) on one side irrespective of former political faith, and on the other side the ex-slaves organized and led by a few native and Northern whites called respectively scalawags and carpet-baggers, who were supported by the United States government and who controlled the Southern state governments. The Ku Klux movement in its wider aspects was the effort of the first class to destroy the control of the second class. To control the negro the Klan played upon his superstitious fears by having night patrols, parades and drills of silent horsemen covered with white sheets, carrying skulls with coals of fire for eyes, sacks of bones to rattle, and wearing hideous masks. In calling upon dangerous blacks at night they pretended to be the spirits of dead Confederates, “just from Hell,” and to quench their thirst would pretend to drink gallons of water which was poured into rubber sacks concealed under their robes. Mysterious signs and warnings were sent to disorderly negro politicians. The whites who were responsible for the conduct of the blacks were warned or driven away by social and business ostracism or by violence.

Nearly all southern whites (except “scalawags”), whether members of the secret societies or not, in some way took part in the Ku Klux movement. As the work of the societies succeeded, they gradually passed out of existence. In some communities they fell into the control of violent men and became simply bands of outlaws, dangerous even to the former members; and the anarchical aspects of the movement excited the North to vigorous condemnation. The judgment of the historian William Garrott Brown, himself a Southerner, is worth quoting: “That violence was often used cannot be denied. Negroes were often whipped, and so were carpet-baggers. The incidents related in such stories as Tourgée’s A Fool’s Errand all have their counterparts in the testimony before congressional committees and courts of law. In some cases, after repeated warnings, men were dragged from their beds and slain by persons in disguise, and the courts were unable to find or to convict the murderers. Survivors of the orders affirm that such work was done in most cases by persons not connected with them or acting under their authority. It is impossible to prove or disprove their statements. When such outrages were committed, not on worthless adventurers, who had no station in the Northern communities from which they came, but on cultivated persons who had gone South from genuinely philanthropic motives—no matter how unwisely or tactlessly they went about their work—the natural effect was to horrify and enrage the North.”

The United States Congress in 1871-1872 enacted a series of “Force Laws” intended to break up the secret societies and to control the Southern elections. Several hundred arrests were made, and a few convictions were secured. The elections were controlled for a few years, and violence was checked, but the Ku Klux movement went on until it accomplished its object by giving protection to the whites, reducing the blacks to order, replacing the whites in control of society and state, expelling the worst of the carpet-baggers and scalawags, and nullifying those laws of Congress which had resulted in placing the Southern whites under the control of a party composed principally of ex-slaves. (2)

Ku Klux Klan in the U.S. Legal History


A secret organization founded in the southern states during Reconstruction to terrorize and intimidate former slaves and prevent them from voting or holding public office. Officially disbanded in 1869, a second anti-black, anti-Catholic, and anti-Semitic Klan emerged in 1915 that aimed to preserve “Americanism.”


Notes and References

  1. Entry about Ku Klux Klan in the Encyclopedia of Race and Crime
  2. Encyclopedia Britannica (11th Edition)

See Also

Further Reading

J. C. Lester and D. L. Wilson, Ku Klux Klan (New York, 1905); W. L. Fleming, Civil War and Reconstruction in Alabama (New York, 1905), and Documentary History of Reconstruction (Cleveland, 1906); J. W. Garner, Reconstruction in Mississippi (New York, 1901); W. G. Brown, Lower South in American History (New York, 1901); J. M. Beard, Ku Klux Sketches (Philadelphia, 1876); J. W. Burgess, Reconstruction and the Constitution (New York, 1901).

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