The Ku Klux Klan: The First Era
With the ending of the Civil War in 1865, the period of American history known as
the Reconstruction began. It was during this era that the Ku Klux Klan, a white
supremacist group, spunoff from the freemasons, first came to power. The Freemasons
usually tended to attract people in the upper-middle class, while the KKK and Knights of
Labor, another racist group, attracted the working class.
The KKK was formed mostly to restore the “peculiar institution” of slavery to
America and to reinstate the Caucasian race as the most superior race in the world. A
former Confederate general and Freemason, Nathan Bedford Forrest, founded the Klan in
1866 because Negroes were being allowed to enter the brotherhood of freemasonry. He
served as the Klan’s first Imperial Wizard, and Albert Pike, another freemason, held the
office of the Chief Justice of the KKK. He held this office while he was simultaneously
Sovereign Grand Commander of Scottish Rite, Freemasons, Southern Jurisdiction. His
racism was well known, and in justifying his actions, he stated “I took my obligation to
white men, not to Negroes. When I have to accept Negroes as brothers or leave Masonry,
I shall leave it.” (1)
The bare facts about the birth of the Ku Klux Klan and its revival a half century
later are baffling to most people today. Little more than a year after it was founded, the
secret society thundered across the war-torn south, sabotaged Reconstruction
governments, and imposed a reign of terror and violence that lasted three or four years.
And then, as rapidly as it had spread, the Klan faded into the History books. After World
War I, a new version of the Klan sputtered to life and brought many parts of the nation
under its paralyzing grip of racism and bloodshed. Then, having grown to be a major force
for the second time, the Klan again receded into the background. This time it never quite
disappeared, but it never again commanded such widespread support.
The origin of the Ku Klux Klan was a carefully guarded secret for years, although
there were many theories to explain its beginnings. One popular notion held that the Ku
Klux Klan was originally a secret order of Chinese opium smugglers. Another claimed it
was begun by Confederate prisoners during the war. The most ridiculous theory attributed
the name to some ancient Jewish document referring to the Hebrews enslaved by Egyptian
In fact, the beginning of the Klan involved nothing so sinister, subversive, or
ancient as the theories supposed. It was the boredom of small-town life that led six young
Confederate veterans to gather around a fireplace one December evening in 1865 and
form a social club. The place was Pulaski, Tennessee, near the Alabama border. When
they reassembled a week later, the six young men were full of ideas for their new society.
It would be secret, to heighten the amusement, and the titles for the various officers were
to have names as preposterous-sounding as possible, partly for the fun of it and partly to
avoid any military or political implications.
Therefore, the head of the group was called the Grand Cyclops. His assistant was
the Grand Magi; there was to be a Grand Turk to greet all candidates for admission, a
Grand Scribe to act as secretary, Night Hawks for messengers, and a Lictor to be guard.
The members, when the six young men found some, would be called Ghouls. But the
remaining question was what to call the society itself. The founders were determined to
come up with something unusual and mysterious. Being well-educated, they turned to
Greek. After tossing around a number of ideas, Richard R. Reed suggested the word
“kuklos”, from which the English words “circle” and “cycle” are derived. Another
member, Captain John B. Kennedy, had an ear for alliteration and added the word “clam”.
After tinkering with the sound for awhile, the group settled on calling itself the Ku Klux
Klan. The selection of the name, chance though it was, had a great deal to do with the
early success of the Klan. Something about the sound of the name aroused curiosity and
gave the fledgling club an immediate air of mystery , as did the initials KKK, which would
soon take on a terrifying significance.
Soon after the founders named the Klan, they decided to do a bit of showing off
and so disguised themselves in sheets and galloped their horses through the quiet streets of
little Pulaski. Their ride created such a stir that the men decided to adopt the sheets as
the official attire of the Klan. They later added to the effect by making grotesque masks
and wearing white pointed hats. The founders also performed elaborate initiation
ceremonies for new members. Their ceremonies were similar to the hazing popular in
college fraternities and consisted of blindfolding the candidate, subjecting him to a series
of silly oaths and rough handling, and finally bringing him before a “royal altar” where he
was to be inducted with a “royal crown”. The altar turned out to be a mirror and the
crown to be two large Donkey’s ears. Ridiculous though it sounds today, that was the
high point of the earliest activities of the KKK.
If that had been all there was to the KKK, it probably would have disappeared as
quickly and quietly as it had been born. But at some point in early 1866 the club, enlarged
by new members, began to have a chilling effect on blacks. The intimidating night rides
were soon the centerpiece of the hooded order: bands of white-sheeted ghouls paid
late-night visits to black homes, telling the terrified occupants to behave themselves and
warning them that they would come back if their orders were not obeyed. It didn’t take
long for the threats to be converted into violence against blacks who insisted on exercising
their new rights and freedom. Before its six founders realized what had happened, the Ku
Klux Klan had become something they may not have originally intended, something deadly
Much of the Klan’s early reputation was based on mischief. However, over time,
the malicious mischief turned to outright violence. The presence of armed white men
roaming the countryside at night reminded many blacks of the pre-war slave patrols. the
fact that the Klansmen rode with their faces covered intensified blacks’ suspicion and fear.
Whippings were the primary forms of violence between the two groups, but within months
there were bloody clashes between Klansmen and blacks, northerners who had come
South, or Southern Unionists.
By the time the six Klan founders met in December 1865, the opening phase of
reconstruction was nearly complete. All eleven of the former rebel states had been rebuilt
on astonishingly lenient terms which allowed many of the ex-Confederate leaders to return
to positions of power. Southern state legislatures began enacting laws that made it clear
that the aristocrats who ran them intended to yield none of their pre-war power over to
poor whites and especially not over to blacks. These laws became known as the Black
Codes and in some cases they amounted to the virtual re-enslavement of blacks.
In Louisiana the democratic convention resolved that “we hold this to be a
government of White People, made and to be perpetuated for the exclusive benefit of the
White Race, and… that the people of African descent cannot be considered as citizens of
the United States.” (2). Mississippi and Florida in particular enacted vicious black codes,
other southern states (except North Carolina) passed somewhat less severe versions, and
President Andrew Johnson did nothing to prevent them from being enforced.
These laws and violence that erupted against blacks and union supporters in the
South outraged Northerners who just a few months before had celebrated victory not only
over the Confederacy, but its system of slavery as well. In protest of the defiant black
codes, Congress refused to seat the new Southern senators and representatives when it
reconvened in December 1865 after a long recess. Thus, at the moment the fledgling Klan
was born in Pulaski, the stage was set for the showdown between Northerners determined
not to be cheated out of the fruits of their victory and die-hard southerners who refused to
give up their supremacy over blacks.
Ironically, the increasingly violent activities of the Klan throughout 1866 tended
to help prove the argument of Radical Republicans of the North, who wanted harsher
measures taken against southern governments as part of their program to force equal
treatment for blacks. Partly as a result of news reports of Klan violence in the South, the
Radicals won overwhelming victories in the Congressional elections of 1866.
In early 1867 they made a fresh start at Reconstruction. Congress overrode
President Johnson’s veto and passed the Reconstruction Acts, which abolished the
ex-Confederate state governments and divided 10 of the 11 former rebel states into
military districts. The military were charged with the enrolling of black voters and holding
elections for new constitutional conventions in each of the 10 states, which led to the
creation of the Radical Reconstruction Southern governments.
From this point on, the Klan steadily became increasingly more violent in response
to the new federal reconstruction policy. Thousands of the white citizens of Tennessee,
Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi had by this time joined the Klan and many now viewed
the escalating violence with growing alarm- not necessarily because they had sympathy for
the victims but because the night riding was getting out of their control. Anyone could put
on a sheet and mask and ride into the night to commit assault, robbery, rape arson, and
By early 1868, stories about Klan activities were appearing in newspapers
nationwide and Reconstruction governors realized they faced nothing less than
insurrection by a terrorist organization. Orders went out from state capitols and Union
army headquarters to supress the Klan.
Unfortunately, it was too late. From middle Tennessee, the Klan was quickly
established in nearby counties and then in North and South Carolina. In some counties the
Klan became the de facto law, an invisible government that state officials could not
When Tennessee governor William C. Brownlow attempted to plant spies within
the Klan, he found the organization knew as much about his efforts as he did. One
Brownlow spy who tried to join the Klan was found strung up in a tree. Later another spy
was stripped and mutilated, and a third was stuffed into a barrel in Nashville and rolled
into the Cumberland River where he drowned.
With the tacit sympathy and support of most white citizens often behind, the Klan
worked behind a veil that was impossible for Brownlow and other Reconstruction
governors to pierce. But even though a large majority of white Southerners opposed the
radical state governments, not all of them approved of the hooded order’s brand of
vigilante justice. “ During its first year, the Klan’s public marches and parades were
sometimes hooted and jeered at by townspeople who looked upon them as a joke”. (3)
Later, when the Klan began to use guns and whips to make its point, some civic leaders
spoke out against the violence.
But in the 1860’s white southern voices against the Klan were in the minority. One
of the Klan’s greatest strengths during this period was the large number of editors,
ministers, former Confederate officers and political leaders who hid behind its sheets and
guided its actions.
As the violence escalated, it turned into general lawlessness and some Klan groups
even began fighting each other. In Nashville, a gang of outlaws who adopted the Klan
disguise came to be known as the Black Ku Klux Klan, and for several months middle
Tennessee was plagued by a guerrilla war between the real and bogus Klans.
The Klan was also coming under increased attack by Congress and the
Reconstruction state governments. The leaders of the Klan realized that the orders’ end
was at hand, at least as any sort of organized force.
It is widely believed that Forrest ordered the Klan disbanded in January 1869, but
the surviving document is rather ambiguous (some historians think Forrest’s “order” was
just a trick so he could deny responsibility or knowledge of Klan activities).
Whatever the actual date, it is clear that as an organized body across the South, the
KKK had ceased to exist by the end of 1869.
That did not end the violence, however, and as atrocities became more
widespread, radical legislatures throughout the region passed harsher laws, imposed
martial law in some Klan-dominated counties, and actively hunted Klan leaders.
In 1871 Congress held hearings on the Klan and passed a tough anti-Klan law
modeled after a North Carolina statute. Under the new federal law, Southerners lost their
jurisdiction over the crimes of assault, robbery and murder, and the president was
authorized to declare martial law. Night riding and the wearing of masks were expressly
prohibited. Hundreds of Klansmen were arrested but few actually went to prison.
These laws probably dampened the enthusiasm for the Klan, but they can hardly be
credited with destroying it. The fact was, by the mid-1870’s white southerners had retaken
control of most Southern state governments and didn’t need the Klan as much as before.
Klan terror had proven very effective at keeping black voters away from the polls. Some
black office holders were hanged and many more brutally beaten. White Southern
Democrats won elections easily, and passed laws taking away many rights that blacks had
won during Reconstruction.
The result was a system of segregation that was the law of the land for over eighty
years. This system was called “separate but equal”, which was half true- everything was
separate, but nothing was equal.
During the last half of the 19th century, memories of the Klan’s brief grip on the
South faded, and its bloody deeds were forgotten by many whites who were once in
sympathy for its cause. However, the Klan would be reborn again, and the only question
Americans could ask was when.