Hundred Years of Terror
report prepared by the
Southern Poverty Law Center 400 Washington Avenue
Montgomery, AL 36104
The Ku Klux
Klan's long history of violence grew out of the resentment and hatred many white
Southerners felt in the aftermath of the Civil War. Blacks, having won the
struggle for freedom from slavery, were now faced with a new struggle
against widespread racism and the terrorism of the Ku
Klux Klan. While the menace of the KKK has peaked and
waned over the years, it has never vanished.
facts about the birth of the Ku Klux Klan and its revival half a 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.
seems incredible that an organization so violent, so opposed to the American
principles of justice and equality, could twice in the nation's history have
held such power. How did the Ku Klux Klan - one of the nation' first
terrorist groups - so instantly seize the South in the aftermath of the
Civil War? Why did it so quickly vanish? how could it have risen so rapidly
to power in the 1920's and then so rapidly loose that power? And why is this
ghost of the Civil War still haunting America today with hatred, violence
and sometimes death for its enemies and
its own members?
do not lie on the surface of American history; they are deeper than the
events of the turbulent 1960's, the parades and cross burnings and lynching
of the 1920's, beyond even the Reconstruction era and the Civil War. The
story begins, really, on the frontier, where successive generations of
Americans learned hard lessons about survival. Those lessons produced some
of the qualities of life for which the nation is most admired--fierce
individualism, enterprising inventiveness and the freedom to be whatever a
person wants to be and go wherever a
new road leads.
frontier spirit included other traits as well, and one was a stubborn
reliance on "frontier justice" - an instant, private, and often violent
method of settling differences without involving lawyers or courts.
Vigilante justice became the motivation for many who later rode with the Ku
obvious explanation of the South's widespread acceptance of the Klan is
found in the institution of slavery. Freedom for slaves represented for
many white Southerners a bitter defeat - a defeat not only of their armies
in the field but of their economic and social way of life. It was an age-old
nightmare come true, for early in Southern life whites in general and
plantation owners in particular had begun to view the large number of slaves
living among them as a potential threat to their property and their lives.
A series of
bloody slave revolts in Virginia and other parts of the South led to the
widespread practice of night patrols - white men specially deputized for the
purpose of prowling Southern roads enforcing the curfew for slaves, looking
for runaways, and guarding rural areas against the threat of black
uprisings. They were authorized by law to give a specific number of lashes
to any violators they caught. The memory of these legal night riders and
their whips was still fresh in the minds of both defeated Southerners and
liberated blacks when the first Klansmen took to those same roads in 1866.
grew out of white Southern anger over the Civil War defeat and the
Reconstruction that followed.
Northerners saw in the Klan an attempt of unrepentant Confederates to win
through terrorism what they had been unable to win on the battlefield. Such
a simple view did not totally explain the Klan's sway over the South, but
there is little doubt that many a Confederate veteran exchanged his rebel
gray for the hoods and sheets of the invisible empire.
conditions in the South immediately after the war added to Southerners'
fears and frustrations. Cities, plantations and farms were ruined; people
were impoverished and often hungry; there was an occupation army in their
midst; and Reconstruction governments threatened to usurp the traditional
white ruling authority. In the first few months after the fighting ended,
white Southerners had to contend with the losses of life, property and, in
their eyes, honor. The time was ripe for the Ku Klux Klan to ride.
of the Ku Klux Klan
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 pharaohs.
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 of the thing, 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.
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 the guard. The members, when the six young men found some to join, would
be called Ghouls. But what name 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 a while, group settled on the "Ku Klux Klan." The selection of
the name, chance though it was, had a great deal to do with the Klan's early
success. Something about the sound aroused curiosity and gave the fledgling
club an immediate air of mystery, as did the initials K.K.K., which were
soon to take on such terrifying significance.
the founders named the Klan, they decided to 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 regalia of the Ku Klux Klan, and
they added to the effect by making grotesque masks and tall pointed hats.
The founders also performed elaborate initiation ceremonies for new members.
Their ceremony was similar to the hazing popular in college fraternities and
consisted of blindfolding the candidate, subject him to a series of silly
oaths and rough handling, and finally bringing him before a "royal alter"
where he was to be invested with "royal crown." The altar turned out to be a
mirror and the crown two large donkey's ears. Ridiculous though it sounds
today, that was the high point of the earliest activities of the Ku Klux
been all there was to the Ku Klux Klan, it probably would have disappeared
as quietly as it was born. But at some point in early 1866 the Club,
enlarged with new members from nearby towns, began to have a chilling effect
on local 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, admonishing the terrified occupants to behave themselves and
threatening more visits if they didn't. 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 serious.
beginning in the little town of Pulaski, Tenn., the Klan began to grow.
Historians disagree on the intention of the six founders, but it is known
that word quickly spread about the new organization whose members met in
secret and rode with their faces hidden, who practiced elaborate rituals and
Much of the
Klan's early reputation was based on mischief. One favorite Klan tactic was
for a white sheeted Klansman wearing a ghoulish mask to ride up to a black
home at night and demand water. When the well bucket was offered, the
Klansman would gulp it down and demand more, having actually poured the
water through a rubber tube that flowed into a leather bottle concealed
beneath his robe. After draining several buckets, the rider would exclaim
that he had not had a drink since he died on the battlefield at Shiloh, and
gallop into the night, leaving the impression that ghosts of Confederate
dead were riding the countryside.
In time, the
malicious mischief turned to outright violence. The presence of armed white
men roving the countryside at night reminded many blacks of the pre-war
slave patrols. The fact that Klansmen rode with their faces covered
intensified blacks' suspicion and fear. Whippings were used first, but
within months there were bloody clashes between Klansmen and blacks,
Northerners who had come South, or Southern unionists.
Rule Victimized Blacks
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 poor whites and
especially over blacks. These laws became known as the Black Codes and in
some cases they amounted to a virtual re-enslavement of blacks.
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." 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.
and the 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 a 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.
the increasingly violent activities of the Klan throughout 1866 tended to
help prove the argument of Radical Republicans in 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.
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 enrolling
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.
1867, a call went out for all known Ku Klux Klan chapters or dens to send
representatives to Nashville, Tennessee, for a meeting that would plan the
Klan response to the new federal Reconstruction policy. Throughout the
summer and fall, the Klan steadily had become more violent. 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 a mask and ride into the night to commit assault,
robbery, rape, arson or murder.
Nashville Klan meeting, leaders sought to grapple with these problems and
decide just what sort of organization the Klan would be. They created a
chain of command and sanctioned white supremacy as the fundamental creed of
the Ku Klux Klan. Throughout the summer of 1867 the invisible empire
changed, shedding the antics that had brought laughter and taking on the
full nature of a secret and sinister force.
now-familiar tactics of the Klan date from this period - the threats
delivered to blacks, radicals and other enemies, the night raids on
individuals they singled out for rougher treatment, and the mass
demonstrations of masked and robed Klansmen designed to cast fear over a
1868, stories about Klan activities were appearing in newspapers nationwide
and Reconstruction governors realized they faced nothing less than an
insurrection by a terrorist organization. Orders went out from state
capitols and Union army headquarters to suppress the Klan.
But it was
too late. From middle Tennessee, the Klan quickly was 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
Tennessee Governor William G. 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 in a
barrel in Nashville and rolled into the Cumberland River where he drowned.
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. 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
late 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.
none was more widely respected in the South than the Klan's reputed leader,
Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, a legendary Confederate cavalry officer who
settled in Tennessee and apparently joined the Klan fairly soon after it
began to make a name for itself. Forrest became the Klan's first imperial
wizard, and in 1867 and 1868 he was its chief missionary, traveling over the
South establishing new chapters and quietly advising its new members.
side of the Ku Klux Klan, the mutilations and floggings, lynching and
shootings, began to spread across the South in 1868, and any words of
caution that may have been expressed at the Nashville meeting were submerged
beneath a stream of bloody deeds.
violence escalated, it turned to 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 order's end was at hand, at least as any sort of organized
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
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.
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.
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
officeholders were hanged and many more were brutally beaten. White Southern
Democrats won elections easily, and passed laws taking away many rights that
blacks had won during Reconstruction.
was a system of segregation which was the law of the land for more than 80
years. This system was called "separate but equal," which was half true -
everything was separate, but nothing was equal.
last half of the nineteenth 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 with its cause. On the national scene, two events served to
set the stage for the Ku Klux Klan to be reborn in the twentieth century.
was massive immigration, bringing some 23 million people from Great Britain,
Germany, Italy, Hungary, and Russia and a great cry of opposition from some
Americans. The American Protective Association, organized in 1887, reflected
the attitude of many Americans who believed that the nation was being
swamped by alien people. This organization a secret, oath-bound group was
especially strong in the mid-west where the Ku Klux Klan would later draw
much of its strength.
major event which prepared the ground for the Klan's return was World War I.
On the European battlefields, blacks served in the uniform of their country
and saw a new world open up before them. Back at home, Americans learned
suspicion of anything alien, and shunned President Wilson's League of
South, yet another series of events occurred which helped breathe life into
the Klan several decades later. In the 1890's an agrarian Populist movement
tried to build a coalition of blacks and poor whites against the mill
owners, large landholders and conservative elite of the Old South. The
answer of the aristocracy was the old cry of white supremacy combined with
the manipulation of black votes, and the Populists were substantially turned
back in every Deep South state except Georgia and North Carolina. The result
was a feeling across the South shared by both aristocracy and many poor
whites that blacks had to be frozen out of their society.
1890's marked the beginning of the Deep South's most divisive attempts to
keep blacks politically, socially and economically powerless. Most
segregation laws date from that period. It was also the beginning of a
series of lynching of blacks by white mobs. The combination of legalized
racism and the constant threat of violence eventually led to a major black
migration to Northern cities.
Simmons, a Spanish American War veteran-turned preacher-turned salesman, was
a compulsive joiner, holding memberships in maybe a dozen different
societies and two churches. But he had always dreamed of starting his own
fraternal group and in the fall of 1915 he put his plans into action.
Thanksgiving Eve, Simmons herded 15 fellow fraternalists onto a hired bus
and drove them from Atlanta to nearby Stone Mountain. There, before a cross
of pine boards, Simmons lit a match and the Ku Klux Klan of the 20th century
Simmons adopted the titles and regalia of the original version, his new
creation had little similarity at first to the Reconstruction Klan, which
had officially ended in 1869. Simmons' Klan was not unlike the dozens of
benevolent societies then population America. There is little doubt that
Simmons' ultimate purpose in forming the group was to make money. But growth
at first was slow, even after America entered World War I in 1917 and the
Klan had a real "purpose"-- that of defending the country from aliens,
idlers and strike leaders.
1920, Simmons met Edward Young Clarke and Elizabeth Tyler, two publicists
who had formed a business in Atlanta. With the Klan's membership at only a
few thousand, Simmons signed a contract with Clarke and Tyler giving them 80
percent of the profits from the dues of the new members Simmons so eagerly
sought. The promoters used an aggressive new sales pitch--the Klan would be
rabidly pro America, which to them meant rabidly anti-black, anti-Jewish and
most importantly, anti-Catholic.
stance was graphically illustrated by Simmons when he was introduced to an
audience of Georgia Klansmen and drew a Colt automatic pistol, a revolver
and a cartridge belt from his coat and arranged them on the table before
him. Plunging a Bowie knife into the table beside the guns, he issued an
invitation: "Now let the Niggers, Catholics, Jews and all others who disdain
my imperial wizardry, come out!"
was clear--the new Klan was going to mean business. And that soon meant
expanding its list of enemies to include Asians, immigrants, bootleggers,
dope, graft, night clubs and road houses, violation of the Sabbath, sex,
pre- and extra-marital escapades and scandalous behavior. The Klan, with its
new mission of social vigilance, soon had organizers scouring the nation,
probing for the communities' fears and then exploiting them to the hilt.
tactic was an overnight raging success. By the late summer of 1921 nearly
100,000 people had enrolled in the invisible empire, and at ten dollars a
head (tax-free since the Klan was a "benevolent" society), the profits were
impressive. While Simmons made speeches and tinkered with ritual, Clarke
busied himself with expanding the treasury, launching Klan publishing and
manufacturing firms and investing in real estate. The future looked very
that summer the Klan leaders in Atlanta ran into their first
trouble--controlling their far-flung empire. While Klan officials talked of
fraternal ideals in Atlanta, their members across the nation began to take
seriously the fiery rhetoric the recruiters were using to drum up new
initiation fees. Violence first flared in a rampage of whippings,
tar-and-feathers raids and the particularly gruesome use of acid to brand
the letters "KKK" on the
foreheads of blacks, Jews and others they considered anti-American.
Ministers, sheriffs, policemen, mayors and judges either ignored the
violence or secretly participated. Few Klansmen were arrested, much less
September, the New York World began a series of expos‚ articles of the Klan,
backed up by the revelations of an ex-recruiter. Another newspaper reported
some of the internal gossip and financial manipulations within the Atlanta
headquarters. And even more embarrassing was a story in the World that
Clarke and Tyler had been arrested not quite fully clothed in a police raid
on a bawdy house in 1919.
badly tarnished the Klan's moralistic image and began a serious rift within
the ranks. The World's expose' also brought demands for countermeasures, and
Congress responded in October, 1921, with hearings into the Klan's
activities. Although the congressional inquiry so upset Clarke that he
considered resigning, the actual hearings did little damage to the Klan.
Simmons explained away the secrecy of the Klan as just part of the fraternal
aspect of the organization; he disavowed any link between his Klan and the
nightriders of Reconstruction days and he denied--just as Forrest had done
50 years earlier--any knowledge of or responsibility for the violence. The
committee adjourned without action and the Klan benefited from all the
seemed as if people in the rural areas of the country were determined to
support whatever the big newspapers and Congress condemned. Following more
articles in the World, these concentrating on the violent nature of the
Klan, membership in the invisible empire exploded. "It wasn't until the
newspapers began to attack the that it really grew," Simmons recalled later.
"Certain newspapers also aided us by inducing Congress to investigate us.
The result was that Congress gave us the best advertising we ever got.
Congress made us."
Klan's new strength came prolonged internal bickering. In the fall of 1922,
with Texas dentist Hiram Wesley Evans leading the way, six conspirators made
plans to dethrone Simmons. Evans became imperial wizard and in 1928, the
conspirators saw a chance to grab permanent control of the Klan's property,
worth millions of dollars by this time. When Clarke was indicted on a
two-year-old morals charge, Evans was able to cancel the promoters lucrative
contract with the Klan and thus seize control of the money-making dues
apparatus. Mrs. Tyler had already resigned to get married, so that left only
Simmons, who became furious when he realized that he had been out-maneuvered
by Evans and his faction.
A full scale
war was fought between the Evans' and Simmons' factions with lawsuits and
countersuits, warrants and injunctions, all gleefully reported in the
newspapers across the country. The fight spilled over into chapters in Texas
and Pennsylvania and the resulted in the shooting of Simmons' lawyers by
Evans' hot-headed chief publicity man. The power struggle ended in February,
1924, when Simmons agreed to a cash settlement.
continued to grow during this period of internal strife, but all of its
weaknesses were laid open for America to see. The Klan promoted itself as an
organization dedicated to defending the morals of the nation but there been
too many charges of immorality against its leaders. Its supposed nonprofit
status was badly undermined by the wrangling over finances and most of its
vaunted secrecy was exposed in the reams of court documentation churned out
by the feuding.
violence was clearly revealed. Under Evans a wave of repression punctuated
by lynchings, shootings and whippings swept over the nation in the early and
mid-1920's and many communities were firmly in the grasp of the Klan's
terror. The victims were usually blacks, Jews, Catholics, Mexicans and
various immigrants, but sometimes they were white, Protestant, and female.
Klansmen attacked people they considered "immoral" or "traitors" to the
for example, a divorcee with two children was flogged for the crime of
remarrying, and then given a jar of Vaseline for her wounds. In Georgia a
woman was given 60 lashes for a vague charge of "immorality and failure to
go to church." And when her 15-year-old son ran to her rescue, he received
the same treatment. In both cases the leaders of the Klansmen responsible
turned out to be ministers.
instances were not confined to the South--in Oklahoma Klansmen applied the
lash to girls caught riding in automobiles with young men, and the Klan in
the San Joaquin Valley in California were know to flog and torture women.
In a period
when many women were fighting for the vote, for a place in the job market,
and for personal and cultural freedom, the Klan claimed to stand for "pure
womanhood" and frequently attacked women who sought
period of its most uncontrolled violence, the Klan also experienced
unprecedented political gains. In 1922 Texas voters sent Klansman Earl
Mayfield to the U.S. Senate, and Klan campaigns helped defeat two Jewish
congressmen who had headed the Klan inquiry. Klan efforts were credited with
helping to elect governors in Georgia, Alabama, California and Oregon. In
Colorado, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Indiana, and Ohio, the Klan also achieved
major power between 1921 and 1924. And there were pockets of strength in
many other areas.
million members, new recruits joining the secret rolls daily, a host of
friendly politicians throughout the land and his internal enemies subdued
for the moment, Evans wanted to influence the presidential election of 1924.
He even shifted his national headquarters from Atlanta to Washington. The
Klan had a foothold in both parties since Deep South members tended to be
Democrats while Klansmen in the North and West were often
But of the
three major Presidential candidates, two were outspoken enemies of the Ku
Klux Klan. And when the Democratic convention opened in New York, many
Democrats were de- manding the party adopt a platform plank condemning the
Ku Klux Klan. The resulting fight tore the convention apart and after days
of bitter wrangling over the issue, the platform plank de- nouncing the Klan
lost by a single vote.
politicians became increasingly uncomfortable with Klan allies as a result
of the turmoil, the success of the Klan candidates across the nation in 1924
buoyed Evans' spirits. His notoriety peaked with a parade of 40,000 Klansmen
down Washington's Pennsylvania Avenue to the Washington Monument in August
1925. Evans boasted of having helped re-elect Coolidge, of having secured
passage of strict anti-immigration laws and of having checked the ambitions
of Catholics and others intent on "perverting" the nation. All in all, the
Klan was riding high in the saddle.
decline of the Ku Klux Klan was just ahead. By 1926 when Evans tried to
repeat the parade in Washington, only half as many marchers arrived and they
were sobered by the news of political defeats in areas that a year before
had been considered safe Klan strongholds.
Increasingly, the Klan suffered counterattacks by the clergy, the press and
a growing number of politicians. Then, in 1927, a group of rebellious
Klansmen in Pennsylvania broke away from the invisible empire and Evans
promptly filed a $100,000 damage suit against them, confident that he could
make an example of the rebels. To his surprise the Pennsylvania Klansmen
fought back in the courts and the resulting string of witnesses told of Klan
horrors, named members and spilled secrets. Newspapers carried accounts of
testimony ranging from the kidnaping of a small girl from her grandparents
in Pittsburgh to the beating of a Colorado Klansman who tried to quit the
Klan. One particularly horrible story described how a man in Terrell, Texas,
had been soaked in oil and burned to death before several hundred Klansmen.
The enraged judge threw Evans' case out of court.
year, when the Democrats nominated Al Smith, a New York Catholic and
longtime Klan foe, to run for president against the Republicans' Herbert
Hoover, the Klan had a perfect issue which Evans hoped to use to whip up the
faithful. But his invisible empire had melted from three million in 1925 to
no more than several hundred thousand, and the Klan was no factor in
Hoover's election. Americans had clearly tired of the divisive effect the
masks, robes and burning crosses had on their communities. What was left of
the Klan's clout disappeared as its
old friends in office, sensing the new political winds, deserted the Klan in
1930's the nation wallowed in the Great Depression and the Klan continued to
shrink. It became primarily a fraternal society, its leaders urging its
members to stay out of trouble and the national headquarters hoarding its
meager funds. After Franklin D. Roosevelt took office, the Klan began to
complain that he was bringing too many Catholics and Jews into the
government. Later they added the charge that the New Deal was tinged with
communism. The red menace was used more and more by Evans and other Klansmen
as their rallying cry, and communists eventually replaced Catholics as one
of the Klan's foremost enemies.
But only in
Florida was the Klan still a factor in the 1930's. With a statewide
membership of about 30,000, the Klan was active in Jacksonville, Miami, and
the citrus belt from Orlando to Tampa. In the orange groves of central
Florida, Klansmen still operated in the old night riding style, intimidating
blacks who tried to vote, "punishing" marital infidelity and clashing with
union organizers. Florida responded with laws to unmask the nightriders, and
a crusading journalist named Stetson Kennedy infiltrated and then exposed
the Klan, rousing the anger of ministers, editors, politicians, and plain
replaced in 1939 by James A. Colescott of Indiana, who led the Klan in the
Carolinas--where unions were crying to organize textile workers--and in
Georgia, where night riding resulted in the flogging of some 50 people
during a two-year period--including an Atlanta couple who were beaten to
death in a love's lane. An outcry from the citizens of Georgia and South
Carolina brought arrests and convictions, and the Klan was forced to
North, the Klan suffered another reversal when some local chapters began to
exhibit ties with American Nazis, a move Southern Klansmen opposed but were
basically powerless to stop. The end cam in 1944 when the Internal Revenue
Service filed a lien against the Ku Klux Klan for back taxes of more
$685,000 on profits earned during the 1920's. "We had to sell our assets and
hand over the proceeds to the government and go out of business," Colescott
recalled when it was over. "Maybe the government can make something out of
the Klan--I never could." Powerful social forces were at work in the United
States following World War II. A new wave of
immigrants, particularly Jewish refugees, arrived from war-torn Europe. A
generation of young black soldiers returned home after having been a part of
a great army fighting for world freedom. In the South, particularly, labor
unions began extensive campaigns to organize poorly paid workers. The
migration from the farms to the cities continued, with a resulting shakeup
in old political alliances. Bigots began to howl more loudly than in years,
and a new Klan leader began to beat the drums of anti-black, anti-union,
anti-Jew, anti-Catholic and anti-Communist
This man was
Samuel Green, an Atlanta doctor. Green managed to reorganize the Klan in
California, Kentucky, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Georgia, South
Carolina, Tennessee, Florida and Alabama. But both federal and state bureaus
of investigation prosecuted Klan lawlessness, and Green found that his
hooded order was surrounded by enemies. The press throughout the South had
become increasingly hostile, ministers were more and more inclined to attack
the Klan and state and local governments passed laws against cross burnings
By the time
of Green's death in 1949, the Klan was fractured by internal disputes and
hounded by investigations from all sides in response to a wave of Klan
violence in the South. Many Klansmen went to jail for floggings or other
criminal acts. And by the early 1950's, membership in the invisible empire
was at its lowest level since its rebirth on Stone Mountain in 1915.