The first two words of the group’s name came from the Greek word “kyklos”, meaning circle.
The aim of the group was quite simply to defeat Reconstruction and restore white supremacy.
The group rapidly expanded, and before long there were groups in virtually every Southern state. The KKK was properly constituted at a convention of Klan groups in April 1867 and rules and a structure was decided. The groups established themselves as the “Invisible Empire of the South”.
Standing in direct opposition to the extension of black rights, the Klan engaged in a campaign of violence and murder against former slaves and black leaders. One of the most notorious incidents of this period was when 500 masked men attacked the Union county jail in South Carolina and lynched eight black prisoners.
This and other similar incidents eventually forced the authorities to act and, combined with some internal fighting, led to Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Grand Wizard of the KKK, to officially disbanded the organisation in 1872.
In 1915 the Klan was revived by William J Simmons in Atlanta, Georgia, following the film release of The Birth of a Nation, a racist film that glorified the first incarnation of the KKK. This new reincarnation had a wider programme than its forbearer and added extreme nativism, anti-Catholicism and antisemitism to its traditional white supremacism.
By 1921 the ranks of the Klan had swollen and some estimates placed the group’s membership as high as four to five million, though in reality it was likely much smaller. However, at its peak it famously marched 40,000 uniformed Klansmen through the streets of Washington D.C. in 1925.
By the end of the decade membership had shrunk back to 30,000 as it broke into dozens of splintered groups, faced pressure from law enforcement and garnered a poor reputation for its violence and extremism. It was also badly affected by the Great Depression which depleted its ranks, and the organisation folded in 1944.
The Third KKK
The Klan emerged again in the 1960s to oppose the civil rights movement and to fight for the preservation of segregation. During this period, it once again engaged in terrorism and murder, including the killing of four young girls in Birmingham, Alabama. During this period the FBI and law enforcement agencies began to seriously monitor, infiltrate and disrupt the KKK.
Over the course of its history, KKK members are believed to have been responsible for the lynching of over 4,500 people, the vast majority of them African Americans.
From the 1970s onwards it has been decentralised, fragmented and hugely weakened by internal conflicts, splits and a number of damaging court cases. While it is no longer the united force it once was, it still has the ability to engage in extreme acts of violence in a small number of isolated areas, though the KKK has been largely eclipsed by militia groups and more traditional neo-nazi and alt-right groups.
Protesting the racist film
The pro-KKK propaganda film ‘Birth of a Nation’ understandably caused a huge backlash of anger with the African American community when it was launched.
The three-hour epic, which was virtually unrivalled in its length at the time, was a grotesque retelling of the American Civil War and reconstruction, particularly with the portrayal of Black people – at best – as too lazy and too ignorant to deserve the citizenship they were offered. At worst, Black people were portrayed as rapists and violent.
The film did not actually have any Black people in it, rather white actors with blacked-out faces.
‘Birth of a Nation’ was met with fierce resistance from African Americans, with the newly formed NAACP leading the campaign against it. However, while the NAACP was unable to persuade censorship boards of theatres to take down the film, the activism it generated saw its membership double and provide a platform for a renewed and sustained opposition to Jim Crow laws.