This paper explores the effects and results of terrorism by the Ku Klux Klan in American over the last 150 years. It describes terrorism tactics use by the Klan in an attempt to get desired results, their ultimate result being that they will become or stay the superior race. It shows how the Klan was started, what they believed in, and how those beliefs grew to include more over the years. It maps out the rise and decline of membership in the Klan. It highlights some key times and events that took place that caused rises, falls, convictions or lack thereof. It shows recruiting tactics and how they have evolved. It displays vigilante acts, corrupt legal systems at times, and even how the Klan got away with murder. Finally it tells of the Ku Klux Klan of today and how the Klan may always be around but that their future looks bleak.
History of Terrorism by the Ku Klux Klan
The Ku Klux Klan has been around for nearly 150 years and has been one of the most feared terrorist groups in American history. The Klan believes in one superior race, the white Anglo Saxon Protestant race, and went against anything else. They started their movement based on the hatred of blacks, but it quickly move to include Jews, Catholics, Republicans, Hispanics or any other race or people who believed other than what they believed. Throughout their history they have mainly targeted people in positions of power, who they seen as a threat to their belief system. They have also used positions of power to their advantage by recruiting or getting Klan members elected as law enforcement officials, judges, or even congress and senate seats. The Klan, also known as “The Invisible Empire,” at times through extreme violence, did what they thought was necessary to uphold their belief system and stay, what they believed to be, the superior race.
The Birth of the Ku Klux Klan
Six middle-class Confederate veterans from Pulaski, Tennessee, created the original Ku Klux Klan on December 24, 1865, in the immediate aftermath of the American Civil War (Dykes, 1999). These six men formed the Ku Klux Klan as a club and their activities were such as to run around in the night pulling pranks while wearing costumes. It didn’t take long for them to figure out that this did not sit easy with people and even scared many of them, especially blacks. Word spread of this fact and more people became interested and their numbers began to grow in size. In early 1867 this lead to a meeting being held where a former Confederate General, Nathan Bedford Forrest, was elected the first Grand Wizard to lead the Ku Klux Klan (KKK).
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The KKK was mainly made up of right-winged, democratic poor white men and women who believed whites were superior, feared blacks would compete with them for jobs if they were freed and did not want to lose the slaves they had. The idea of the KKK became very popular and fast spreading in the southern states. They adopted the name Klansmen and took up the robes and masks to further hide their identity while they attacked in the night. They inflicted great terrorism on blacks and whites who supported them by intimidation, especially when it came to voting, destruction of property, beatings or just outright murder. They targeted blacks mostly in high positions of political power, church organizations and community leadership. The Klan recruited members of law enforcement and used them to assist in riots in black neighborhoods as a form of terror from above. Klansmen would target schoolhouses and churches in their attacks and burn them to the ground. They sought to destroy anyone out to help the non-democratic community. In 1866 riots broke out all over the South. Two notably in Memphis, TN and New Orleans, LA were a combined 83 people were murdered and another 70 wounded (Condon, Miller, & Zweil, 1999). In the year and a half period leading up to the summer of 1867 there were 197 murders and 548 cases of aggravated assault reported in North and South Carolina (Forner, 1988, p. 342).
Just two short years after the Klan began its terror, it started to collapse. Even members of the Democratic Party started turning against the Klan because of lack of law and order and all the crimes that went unpunished in the name to keep Democratic views in political power (Newton, 2001, pp.1-30). Violence outside and even more inside the Klan continued to grow. Eventually, in 1869, this led to Forrest dissolving the Klan nationally and most state and local chapters followed. In 1870 a federal grand jury determined that the Klan was a “terrorist organization” (Horn, 1939, p. 373).
While these steps did do a great deal in abolishing the Klan at the time, it did not stop all terrorist acts by a long shot. There were still smaller groups of the Klan who acted alone and others who were never inducted into the Klan, but who committed acts of vigilantism while hiding behind the name of the Klan. These smaller groups acted not to promote political agendas, but most out of hate. In many towns they were able to keep blacks off juries and out of any real positions of power. When more serious crimes took place, such as lynchings, many juries never convicted the persons who committed the crimes in fear that the local Klan would retaliate.
In the early 1870’s tons of indictments were being handed out to Klan’s members all over the South. So many in fact that the federal court system could not keep up and by the mid 1870’s most of the indictments were dismissed or pardoned due to the overload. The Ku Klux Act of 1871 was pasted to disband the Klan, but later,
In 1882, in United States v. Harris, the Court declared the criminal provisions of the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 unconstitutional. It refused to punish a white lynch mob in Tennessee on the ground that Congress could not reach private conspiracies under its Fourteenth Amendment powers. (Balkin, 2002, p. 4)
Other militant southern groups, not operating under the Klan name, continued acts of terrorism against blacks and the number of lynchings actually increased.
The Second Era of the Ku Klux Klan
The second surge and reimmersion of the Ku Klux Klan was in 1915 by a man named William Simmons. After seeing the movie The Birth of a Nation, Simmons was inspired to start up the Klan again in Stone Mountain Georgia just outside of Atlanta. The rise of the Klan the second time held true to the beliefs against blacks but also added that of being against Catholics, Communist, Jews, immigrants and prohibitionist. Simmons ran an ad in the Atlanta newspaper next to the ad for the movie The Birth of a Nation as a recruitment ploy. Timing could not have been better. At the time the nation was faced with a large increase in immigrants from around the world, but mostly Catholics and Jews who could not speak English. As the United States entered World War I, this further sparked the fire and made it easy to recruit for the Klan on the basis that they fought to protect and defend America and all it stood for from foreigners who did not believe what pureblooded white Americans believed and who could not even speak the English language.
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The Klan was not centralized mostly in the South as before. As the recruitment campaign increased, partly due to Simmons hiring of writers to promote the Klan and partly due with the popularity of the beliefs throughout the middle class, the Klan grew by leaps and bounds in the North and West. Many political leaders; Congressmen, Senators, Mayors and local law enforcement officials became members of the Klan. This increased the frequency of incidents caused by terrorism from above. It also made it easier for other members of the Klan to get-away with terrorism from below for having no fear of reprisal or conviction because other high political officials would let them off or they knew juries would be too scared to convict them in fear of becoming a victim themselves. “By 1921, the Klan numbered almost 100,000 members and money flooded its coffers. At its peak in 1924, 40,000 uniformed Klansmen paraded through the streets of Washington, D.C., during the Democratic National Convention” (“Anti-Defamation League,” 2010). All of these factors combined led to a population of Klan’s membership of over four million by the mid-1920’s.
The majority of Klan members did not result to violence; they agreed with the beliefs or feared telling others they did not believe. They might occasional burn a cross or participate in a march, but for the most part were just bystanders. However, this did not mean that there was not violence in abundance. The minority of Klan members who did actually act upon their beliefs did so frequently and with extreme acts of aggression. All across the country the criminal and terroristic acts of violence could be seen in the forms of tar and featherings, public beatings or whippings and even lynching’s. The targets of these acts continued to be blacks as well as Jews, Catholics and other immigrants (Jackson, 1992, pp. 241-242).
Through national news documentation and what the general public could see in their own communities, the vigilantism, violence and murders did not sit well. This coupled with the own infighting of the Klan over finances and the corruption of its top leaders that went against what the Klan said it stood for brought about the ultimate demise of the Klan during this time period. One single act that seems to stand out above all the rest is that of David Stephenson. Stephenson was the Grand Dragon, aka Klan leader, for the state of Indiana. In 1925 Stephenson was convicted of second degree murder following the rape, and later death by poisoning, of Madge Oberholtzer, a school teacher from Indianapolis who testified against Stephenson. After the news of Stephenson’s conviction spread, the Klan’s numbers began to rapidly decline. From the peak estimated nationwide Klan membership of 4-6 million in 1925, it dropped to around a mere 20,000 by 1930.
The Third Era of the Ku Klux Klan
After World War II the Ku Klux Klan tried to grow, especially in the South, but to no avail. In the late 1950’s the Klan began to grow due to the civil rights movement. Klan membership continued to grow throughout the South and even some in the North as civil rights laws were passed throughout the 1960’s. The number of violent beatings, deadly bombings, and even outright murder rose with the Klan’s membership. Birmingham, Alabama had a large following of the Klan. There were more bombings in Birmingham than any other city in the US in the 1950’s, so many that it was known as “Bombingham” (McWhorter, 2001). Many local law enforcement officials joined the Klan and allowed the Klan to do as they pleased. There was so much terror, bombings and murder that the black community feared for their lives and murders would go unreported and unprosecuted.
Since the 1970’s the Klan has began a steady decline. There have been very few incidents of lynching’s, shootings or bombings. The Klan in the 70’s and 80’s was reduced to mostly small local Klaverns with very few having any ties to the regional or national levels. The Klan tried other approaches to become more appealing, such as claiming to be based on heritage not hate. In the 80’s the Klan made a big push against affirmative action programs. This opened the door for recruiting in high schools and colleges because most whites, especially youthful ones, hated the fact that blacks were given priority in a job just because they were black even if their white counterpart scored better or was more qualified for the job.
The 1990’s and 2000’s with the growth of the internet brought about websites trying to recruit for the Klan. Most of the sights target impressionable young teenage types that could be easily persuade to see things in their light. One of their main targeting ploys lately has been the huge increase in Hispanic immigrants and the fact that so many are coming over illegally and taking jobs and health care benefits away from Americans. They even tried to recruit based on the fact that we now have our first African American President with Obama’s election in 2008. The Klan’s numbers today, however, remain small at an estimated 5,000 members nationwide.
The KKK has come and gone over the past 150 years. They continue to recruit anyone who will listen to their cause and to target anyone who does not believe what they believe. The violence that has terrorized so many in the past is almost non-existent. Today they choose more conventional methods like protesting or donating to causes that support what they do. Though the Ku Klux Klan will always be around and remembered, their numbers are so small now that they are “The Invisible Empire” that is almost truly invisible.
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