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What comes to mind? Pointed hats, white sheets, cross burnings, masked horses, hatred and terrorization. Most would think of the Ku Klux Klan. At the time, the KKK was one of the most powerful organizations in the Southern and Midwestern states. The Ku Klux Klan, promoting Americanism and white supremacy, committed numerous crimes and killed many people including African Americans, Roman Catholics, Jews, and the foreign-born. One of the most prejudicial groups in history, the Ku Klux Klan, dominated southern politics resulting in racial and religious discrimination.
In 1865, the Ku Klux Klan was founded by six college students in the town of Pulaski, Tennessee. Bored, the men passed time by wearing disguises, such as robes and sheets, and galloping on horses into town after dark. They were surprised to see how much fear they caused among townspeople, especially with former slaves. General Nathan Bedford Forrest was selected as the Klan's first Grand Wizard, or top leader. Also referred to as the "Invisible Empire of the South", Klan officers used the titles that include Grand Dragon, Grant Titan, and Grand Cyclops ("Ku Klux Klan" 1).
The KKK was mainly against African Americans, Roman Catholics, Jews, homosexuals and immigrants. They were also against the following: alcoholism, night clubs, unconventional sex, immoral women, and unions ("Ku Klux Klan" 1). The specific group the Klan's disliked depended highly on the region. For example, the KKK on the Pacific coast was anti-Japanese due to Pearl Harbor. The New England KKK was anti-French and Canadian. The KKK in the southwest was anti-Mexican, and the deep southern KKKs were anti-African American (Rice 62). A Catholic organization, the Knights of Columbus, spoke out against the Klan and immediately became targets of violence (Kyvig 149). The Ku Klux Klan discriminated against anything that they did not find to be prevailing American attributes and characteristics (Kyvig 142).
People of the KKK were comprised of political figures, such as senators, congressmen, governors, judges, and future president, Harry Truman ("Ku Klux Klan" 2). President Warren J. Harding was personally installed into the KKK at a service at the White House ("Roaring Backlash" 27). The Ku Klux Klan generally also composed of middle-class, Caucasian Protestants from urban towns (Boardman 103). Other needed criteria to belong consisted of being completely devoted to the United States, and the United States only. The Klan did not want their members to pledge allegiance to other countries.
Perhaps the most identifiable trademark of the KKK was the costume: a white robe, white pointed hood, and white cross with a red background on the left shoulder. Not only was wearing the garments important, one had to memorize the history of the first Klan, believe and practice white supremacy, and support anti-Semitism, anti-foreign born and anti-Catholicism ideals. In addition, the Klansman must promote nothing but "pure" Americanism, Christianity, and extremely strict morals. Members of the Ku Klux Klan believed that it was their duty to investigate privately on the people living in their neighborhood, talk amongst with their Klan members, and then decide on the best solution to reform their neighbor's immoral habits (Rice 63).
One may ask, why did the Klan have these prejudicial beliefs? The KKK feared "New World Order", believed that Jews sought to take over American religious traditions, and thought homosexuals were pushing their way of life into the society ("Ku Klux Klan" 3). The Klan deemed African Americans to be overpowering Caucasians by stealing jobs. Hiram Wesley Evans stated:
The world has been made that each race must fight for its life, must conquer, accept slavery or die. The Klansman believes that the whites will not become slaves, and he does not intend to die before his timeâ€¦ the future of the progress and civilization depends on the continual supremacy of the white race.
With this, the Klan believed that the American race was created under specialized environments; therefore, it should not be "mongrelized" by foreigners (Rice 64). The Klan went so far as to create rituals and a secret language to part them from society ("The Ku Klux Klan" 32).
Committing numerous crimes of hate and domestic terrorism, the Klan set fire to Catholic churches and schools, drove citizens out of their houses, and tormented and killed those who opposed the Klan's beliefs ("Ku Klux Klan" 1). People were whipped, lynched, and killed due mainly to their skin color and religious denomination. African Americans were especially discriminated against by being denied the right to vote by Klansmen who frightened them. In addition, black men were executed for allegedly "looking" at white women. Whites who were sociable to blacks were flogged ("The Minutes" 26).
On April 1, 1921, an African American bellhop was seized by the KKK and branded with acid on his forehead, reading "K.K.K.". A woman, who was supposedly immoral, was taken, stripped, and rolled into tar and feathers. On August 24, 1992, two critics of the Klan were drowned in Lake La Fourche (Rice 67-68). One of the most terrible incidents was when Michael Donald, nineteen years old, was walking alone into a nearby store when he was held at gun point, hit with a tree limb several times, strangled, and hung from a tree. A completely innocent man, Michael was used solely to intimidate other African Americans and to display the strength of the KKK (Thompson 86).
In ten years alone, the Ku Klux Klan committed more than 1,000 acts of "terror, beatings, acid throwing, and murder against black citizens and black and white civil rights workers", mostly located in the south (Thompson 86). Seventy bombings took place in Georgia and Alabama, thirty churches were burned in Mississippi, thirteen murdered in Alabama, three murdered in Mississippi, and one murdered in Georgia (Thompson 55). Jews, blacks, Hispanics and Asians were assaulted 1,500 times (Thompson 39).
The Klan enticed people to join by "putting forth programs that appealed to prejudices of their area". If a specific place feared immigrants, the KKK preached one-hundred percent Americanism and will not allow the United States to be overcome by foreigners. If the town was afraid of "uppity Negroes", the KKK has always known how to deal with them ("Roaring Backlash" 26). People were so enticed by the Klan because it was a way to vent their hate and intolerance. For example, when a large influx of African Americans moved to northern cities and earned higher paying wages from World War I industries, it gave them a more distinguished attitude towards their place in societ. Fearing the security of their jobs, whites became more and more hateful to blacks. The KKK, noticing the hostility, seized the perfect opportunity to acquire new members (Rice 61-62).
Another enticement to the Klan was D.W. Griffith's movie "The Birth of a Nation", based on the novel, The Clansman, by Thomas Dixon (Kyvig 141). The Klansman was depicted as a loyal United States citizen fighting for the white man's oppression against the "evils" of the African American. When the people of America saw "The Birth of a Nation", endorsed even by President Woodrow Wilson, a huge increase of membership followed (Marcovitz 17-18).
Handing out brochures, going door-to-door, having booths in shopping malls, and hosting youth camps were other methods of promoting the Klan (Thompson 42). Professional promoters, such as Edward Y. Clarke, were hired to present the Ku Klux Klan positively and appealingly to the people of America. In fact, the promoters did so well that when the KKK committed a crime, it was rarely mentioned by the media ("The Ku Klux Klan" 32).
Spreading rumors was also a way to interest people into the Klan. Many false statements were declared against the Catholic Church. For example, nuns were being tortured in convents, guns and ammunition were stored under churches, and priests' children were murdered and buried on church ground to prevent people from knowing of their immorality (Thompson 19).
The densest areas of KKK groups were in the Midwest and South. Cities like Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Knoxville, and Memphis were popular with the KKK. The largest area of Klan population was Indianapolis, Indiana (Boardman 106).
At the time when the Klan was at its peak, it also began to control the federal government. With more people joining the Ku Klux Klan, especially political figures, it was easy for the Klan to dictate local issues. For example, the Klan was rarely punished for the crimes it committed because if the judge was also a Klansman, he would not take action against one of his fellow brethren. Even on a smaller scale, if a police officer was part of the KKK, he would not stop any lynchings or other acts of racial hatred that he might have seen. In Oklahoma, the governor was impeached by a legislature that mostly consisted of Klansmen. In Oregon, a member of the Ku Klux Klan was elected to be governor. He then passed a law stating that all children must attend public schools, which was later deemed unconstitutional (Boardman 103).