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.
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
The scene at a Ku Klux Klan
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
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