Knights of the Ku Klux Klan

The KKK Hero Cross (left) was allegedly awarded to members of the original Klan. Though this is possible—there would have been a few elderly survivors in the twenties—the relatively large number of such pieces still extant suggests that they were sold to anyone with a few dollars. They were done in silver and the quality is often quite poor. The piece at the top is an after-market modification in which the drapery has been removed with a scroll saw.

The calling card case is gold plated silver and is likely custom made and possibly unique.

The hood shaped pin is a modern day fantasy piece, likely manufactured in the 1970's. The date of 1867 has no significance to the Klan. It is one of several fake Klan pieces on the market.

The pocket coin shown on the bottom is totally unlike common Klan pocket pieces and quite possibly has nothing to do with the Ku Klux Klan. It has so far defied identification.

 The scene at a Ku Klux Klan initiation ritual.

In order to understand the Ku Klux Klan, it helps to understand the situation in the south in the aftermath of the Civil War. The former Confederacy was under military occupation and a radically liberal new political party—the Republicans—had taken over the country. They had already given former slaves the vote and it would only be a matter of time until they installed some of them in the House of Representatives.

The South was solidly Democratic, the party of Jefferson and the small farmer. Unfortunately, it was also the party of slavery, a subject Jefferson was intimately familiar with. To use contemporary terms, the Democrats of the 1860's were a far right wing party and the Republicans—with their large abolitionist block—were significantly to the left of them. Southerners had been able to dominate the Federal Government up to the mid 1800's—think Washington, Jefferson and Patrick Henry from Virginia, Calhoun from South Carolina, Jackson from Tennessee, and Henry Clay from Kentucky—when the tide begin to shift. When Southern Democrats could no longer control the country—and when they saw the likelihood that slavery would be outlawed under Republicans—the Civil War was probably inevitable.

It seems incredible today to think of Republicans being far to the left of Democrats but politicians, unlike leopards, do change their spots. (Or at least their names.) The South remained solidly Democratic—and right wing—until Lyndon Johnson pushed through the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts. (Which, it is worth noting, were vigorously opposed by Southern Democrats.) After that the solidly Democratic South became the solidly Republican South. Though the party affiliation changed, attitudes did not. It is well nigh impossible to tell today's Southern Republican from yesterday's Southern Democrat.

The Ku Klux Klan was organized—if one can use that term—in Pulaski, Tennessee on December 24th, 1866 by six former Confederate veterans. It has been suggested that originally it had been meant as simply another fraternal order, one of many being founded around that time—sort of a Southern Masonry. But if this was the intent, it failed dismally. It did not build orphanages or Old Klansman's Homes—and for that matter, even lodge halls. It did not provide its members with low cost life insurance as was becoming common with fraternal orders at that time. In fact, there is little evidence it ever did anything for its members other than provide an outlet for their racial hatreds.

Though a failure at fraternalism, it did enjoy quite a bit of success as a terrorist organization. Given the founders, there is little reason to think it was ever meant to be anything else. From the beginning, it did everything it could to conduct guerrilla warfare against the occupying Northern forces and the Republican Party. The newly freed slaves would be ruthlessly suppressed. Murder was frequently the means toward this end.

The first Grand Dragon was Nathan Bedford Forrest. Forrest, who some have accused of being a cold blooded murderer, had commanded a fast-strike force in the Civil War and well understood the concept of guerrilla warfare. There can be little doubt his fellow Confederate veterans shared his viewpoint.

The activities of the Klan did not go unnoticed and the Federal Government eventually took action with several laws being passed by congress in 1870 and 1871 to suppress the Klan. With the government breathing down his back, Forrest, in 1869, had ordered the KKK to disband, saying the Klan had been “perverted from its original honorable and patriotic purpose becoming injurious instead of subservient to the public peace”. Had the KKK had any organized structure, this might have been more effective. Unfortunately, organization was not the strong point of the Klan and Forrest's edict had little effect.

 The Historian Elane Frantz Parsons sums up Klan membership which, ironically, is a shining example of diversity:

Lifting the Klan masks revealed a chaotic multitude of anti-black vigilante groups, disgruntled poor white farmers, war-time guerrilla bands, displaced democratic politicians, illegal whiskey distillers, coercive moral reformers, sadists, rapists, white workmen fearful of black competition, employers trying to enforce labor discipline, common thieves, neighbors with decades old grudges, and even a few freedmen and Republicans who allied with Democratic whites or had criminal agendas of their own. Indeed, all they had in common besides being overwhelmingly white, southern, and Democratic, were that they called themselves, or were called, Klansmen.

What did affect the Klan was the prospect of a lengthy sentence in a Federal Prison. That, and the fact that the Klan had, through blatant terrorism, managed to put Democrats back in power and bring about the end of Reconstruction meant that essentially its mission had been accomplished. The Klan gradually declined in the 1870's. Part was due to political fatigue on part of Republicans who wanted to see an end of the whole Civil War thing and no longer were enthusiastic about an occupying army in the South. And so the first era of the Klan came to an end.  But the best days were yet to come.

Probably everything commonly known about the Klan comes from its second incarnation, starting in 1915. The white robes, the burning crosses, the incendiary rhetoric directed at Catholics and Jews, the Kludds, Kleagles, and Klaverns , all were originated by the Klan in its second advent. It was during this era that the Klan achieved its greatest membership and spread to numerous northern and western states.

Fraternal orders sometimes attach the adjective “Improved” to their name. To a great extent, the Klan of 1915 was an effort to become an “Improved KKK” as it attempted to became a legitimate fraternal order. Ritual was written and new officers were named. Some rudimentary structure was imposed.

But if the aim of the second Klan was to become a respectable fraternal order, it failed just as miserably as the first. The failure of the first was in large part economic—most early Klansmen were dead broke—and due to government suppression. The failure of the second was its inability to reconcile a political movement and a fraternal order's need to take care of its members—that and the fact that the entire enterprise was nothing more than an elaborate con job.

In spite of laudable acts of charity, fraternal orders are not altogether altruistic. The main purpose of any fraternal order is to look after the interests of its members. This second KKK, in addition to being a vigorous backer of Prohibition, was so busy hating Blacks, liberals, Catholics, Jews, and, later, Communists, that it neglected to do anything for its members. Other Nativist organizations, such as the Patriotic Order Sons of America and the Order of United American Mechanics were just as vitriolic in their hatred for Catholics and immigrants but somehow managed to keep their members at the forefront. The POS of A and the OUAM/Jr. OUAM also managed to eventually overcome their bigotry proving that you can, sometimes, make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.

The Klan got its second wind when William J. Simmons attempted a reorganization in Stone Mountain, Georgia in 1915. Simmons, a member of a dozen legitimate fraternal orders, had obviously hoped to transform the Klan into something like the organizations he belonged to. He initially had little success until in 1920 he turned the day to day operation of the Klan over to a pair of professional fund raisers—and master con artists—named Elizabeth Tyler and Edward Young Clarke. Though Tyler and Clarke probably sympathized with the Klan's aims, there can be little doubt they saw it primarily as a money making opportunity. Klan organizers, now called Kleagles, had never hesitated to line their pockets with their recruits initiation fees but Tyler and Clarke took it to a whole new level. In addition to helping themselves to as much as eighty percent of the initiation fees, they also owned factories manufacturing the Klan robes and regalia. In spite of their brief reign (Tyler was forced out of the Klan in an internal power struggle in 1923 and Clarke, ousted by Simmons' successor in 1924, dropped out of sight with the law on his tail*), the Klan prospered reaching an estimated four to six million members in 1924**. Unlike the first Klan which was essentially a Southern organization, the second Klan extended to numerous northern and western states.  At one time there were alleged to be forty thousand Klansmen in Detroit.

The rapid growth of the second Klan was fueled by a reaction to a wave of European Catholic immigration and the migration of southern Blacks to northern cities. Though the Klan had always been anti-Black, it was here that it acquired its anti-Catholic bias, an echo of the anti-Catholic and anti-immigrant Nativist orders of the mid 1840's. Much of it was economic as unskilled white workers in the north feared losing their jobs to blacks and immigrants. In the early to mid twenties, the Klan enjoyed considerable political influence in non-southern states electing numerous state officials and several congressmen. In 1925, it held a significant demonstration and march in Washington D.C.

Though the rise of the second Klan was meteoric, its decline was equally impressive and by 1930 the membership had dropped to an estimated 30,000. The reasons were several. Numerous newspapers launched investigations of the Klan and it was denounced by several prominent religious leaders. It didn't help when David C. Stephenson, Grand Dragon of the Indiana Klan was convicted of murder and the Governor of Indiana and the Mayor of Indianapolis—both Klan supporters—faced indictments. Several states passed laws that effectively suppressed the Klan. It is also likely that a number of members realized that they had been sold a bill of goods along with their robes and hoods.

Also significant in the decline of the Klan was the fact that the fears that had led to the rise of the Klan in the first place simply never materialized. The twenties—at least up until the depression—were relatively prosperous and there was no significant job loss or social upset due to the migration of southern Blacks to northern cities. Nor did the largely Catholic European immigration lead to the establishment of a Catholic theocracy in America. Like most waves of paranoia, this one proved groundless.

The Great Depression, beginning in 1929, deprived the Klan of virtually all its dues paying members. It proved equally devastating to legitimate fraternal orders as well and many did not survive. After 1930, the Klan was no longer a money making enterprise and as a consequence interest declined even further—the fact that there was easy money to be made was always at the heart of the Klan. In 1939, Hiram Evans, Imperial Wizard and successor to Simmons, saw the writing on the wall and sold the organization to James Colescott and Samuel Green—the Klan had been incorporated as a business.  In 1944, the IRS slapped a lien of $685,000 for back taxes against the organization which bankrupted it. This was effectively the end of the second Klan.

The Ku Klux Klan has always been a reactionary organization and the third Klan (1950 to present) was a reaction to the Civil Rights movement beginning in the fifties. The third Klan greatly resembles the first, being largely Southern, small in number, and fragmented. Unlike the second Klan, today's Klan has no national structure and consists of perhaps a dozen small organizations.  It also matches the first in violence, primarily toward blacks. In the fifties and early sixties, there were numerous murders in the South, most of which went unpunished because of the collusion between the Klan and Southern politicians and law enforcement. Even the FBI, under the leadership of J. Edgar Hoover, had more interest in infiltrating the Civil Rights Movement than the Klan—Hoover considered the Civil Rights Movement to be communist inspired.

The violence reached a climax in 1963 when a black church in Birmingham, Alabama was dynamited, killing four little girls. The national outrage that followed helped pass the Civil Rights act and the Voting rights act. It also pressured  the FBI to apply the same diligence to investigating the Klan that it had applied to the Civil Rights Movement. Members of the Klan found themselves being made offers they simply couldn't refuse—like a chance to avoid a lengthy prison sentence—and the government acquired numerous informers in the organization. (The joke at one time was that if all the informers were to stop paying their dues, the Klan would promptly go bankrupt.) There were eventually successful prosecutions and convictions and the government even dusted off the Anti-Klan Acts of the 1870's. Civil lawsuits which cost the Klan money also proved effective.

Membership in today's Klan, spread across numerous small organizations, has been estimated at 4,000 to 10,000. There are a few on-line sites but in large part the Klan of today isn't all that computer literate. The Klan has also suffered from the same problem affecting all organizations—people today are simply not joiners as they were in earlier times. It can also be argued that the overall level of bigotry in this country has declined as evidenced by the election of a Catholic and black man to the Presidency.

*Clarke, after his ouster by Hiram Evans, continued his con artistry and several times found himself in conflict with the law. In 1939, at the age of 73, he was on his way to prison when he managed to escape from his parole officer and was never seen again.

**Membership numbers in the Klan are necessarily estimates and it is generally agreed that the numbers were exaggerated by both the Klan and their adversaries. There is no doubt the Klan had a substantial membership in the mid twenties but even the low estimates were likely inflated.

Klan Membership Certificate

 

                  

               

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