The name “Ku Klux Klan” conjures, for us, images of hooded men preying on black people at night — something like the Klan scene in “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?” Theatrical and nasty, yes. But a vast conspiracy? An insurgent army? No.
Disturbingly enough, this project has required learning more about the Klan than the basics we gather through pop culture. The KKK as known today is literally an imitation. The original Klan, much like like ISIS or the modern Taliban, was born from the ashes of war — a group of people unwilling to accept military defeat who turned to terrorism.
The Klan began with former Confederate soldiers in Tennessee and quickly spread across the South, an insurgency with guns and raids and loosely organized leadership. Members primarily targeted blacks, especially those who dared to own land, who were economically successful, and most of all, who were impudent enough to speak up for black rights.
They murdered at least seven black men who attended southern constitutional conventions in 1867 and 1868. In one county in Florida, 150 people were killed. In Louisiana, 2,000 people were killed, wounded or injured during a single election season. Actually, the word “kill” glosses over the Klan’s actions. Here’s historian Eric Foner:
“Jack Dupree, victim of a particularly brutal murder in Monroe County, Mississippi — assailants cut his throat and disemboweled him, all within sight of his wife, who had just given birth to twins — was ‘president of a Republican club,’ and known as a man who ‘would speak his mind.’”
They also targeted white Republicans, both of note and of little notice. They attacked judges, newspaper editors and legislators. They lynched an Irish teacher of black students.
Klansmen were described by later historians as poor whites who let their prejudices run away with them. However, many of their hundreds of victims were able to identify their attackers despite the hood, and they knew them as men from every echlon of the community. Former Confederate General John B. Gordon, for example, was the Democratic candidate for governor in Georgia, and the head of the state Klan at the same time. He would go on to become the first Confederate to preside over the US Senate.
The clan acted essentially as an army for the Democratic Party. In one Georgia County, the Republican vote dropped from more than 1,200 in the April election to a single vote (as in, 1) in November, 1868.
The more liberal Republican Party was caught flat footed when confronted with such vitriolic opposition and (a stumble people may recognize today). Northern Republicans were no strangers political tricks, but they were at a loss to confront political opponents who were literally out to kill southern Republicans.
After defeating a white candidate for justice of the peace, Andrew Flowers was whipped by the Tennesee clan.
“They said they had nothing particular against me, that they didn’t dispute I was a very good fellow … but they did not intend any nigger to hold office in the United States,” he said.
White Northern Republicans had been losing interest in the southern situation. Larger issues of the economy and taxation confronted them. And their prejudices may have been less than the Democrats, but they were evident. During this period Republicans barely let black members of their own party speak on the floor of Congress, to say nothing of pass legislation.
When confronted with the terrors of the clan however, the North once more swung into action, providing federal law enforcement agents and Republican governors with legal standing to go after the hooded militia with the Enforcement Acts (known as the Ku Klux Klan Acts) of 1870 and 1871. Much of the third and final act is still in US code. A federal jury found the Klan to be a terrorist organization at this time.
It was also in this environment that the 15th amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified (in 1870). It prohibited denying the vote to men based on their race. While it was a triumph of progressive Republican ideals in the context of the Civil War, we can also see that it was targeted to a single vexing question. It did not address national origin, allowing the Republicans to discriminate against the Chinese in California. It did not address gender, alienating the women’s rights activist who had labored along side abolitionists for decades. And it did not prohibit tests for voting, allowing poll taxes and other ingenious methods the Confederates would later devise to keep black people from exercising their newly found constitutional right.
Nonetheless, the Klan acts were briefly enforced with damaging results for the insurgent group. Hundreds of members were arrested, a few executed. Although the prosecutions represented a tiny fraction of the men who participated in the violence, the organization was essentially broken.
In Arkansas and Tennessee, Republican governors waged successful counter-insurgency campaigns with state militias and federal troops. But in other areas, such measures created an even stronger backlash from white sympathizers.
Thus, the North successfully crushed the first version of the Klan, but failed to win the hearts or minds of the Confederates. Armed resistance would continue in the South, resulting in the end of Reconstruction and black civil rights.
Decades later, the Klan was lionized in popular media, inspiring a successful revival across the US, this time as an anti-Catholic, anti-Jew, anti-booze group. (See the Second Klan section in Wikipedia) And again, the organization would be imitated in the modern era, with members participating in the infamous march in Charlottesville. Those people, however, are but Halloween costumes compared with the reality of the first Klan — an armed insurgency that brutalized an entire race, a whole region of America and a single political party with a wink and a nod from at least half their neighbors.