Ku Klux Klan is an old American organization founded in the 1860s with a single purpose, and I quote “to advocate white supremacy over other races”. How did what some people nowadays consider to be a kind of far-right political party come into being? What are the reasons that may have pushed the creation of such a clan judged by others as violent and dangerous? Let’s discover together this history.
Credit: Courtesy of Special Collections University of Arkansas Libraries Fayetteville
Importantly, before we begin our investigation into the origins of the Ku Klux Klan (or KKK) to date, the purpose of this article is not to praise a racist organization but only to question the ins and outs of its creation. This point being made, let us continue our story.
The origins of the KKK:
It was on the night of December 24-25, 1865 in the United States after the end of the Civil War (a bloody and dark period in American history) that the Ku Klux Klan was created, by six young Southern officers. Originally from the city of Pulaski in Tennessee, the founders had the idea to scare the black population into disguising themselves as ghosts of former soldiers returning for revenge, and to show their opposition to the latter’s desire for emancipation following the 13th amendment of the American Constitution, particularly following the announcement of the abolition of slavery by President Abraham Lincoln, murdered the same year.
If we break down the name of this organization from an etymological point of view, it would come from the Greek word “kuklos” meaning circle. One of the founding fathers, James Crowe, had the idea of separating this word in two and changing the end to “lux” which in Latin translates as light. Finally, as for the last word, all the founders of the clan are of Scottish origin and in order to respect ancestral traditions while bringing a wind of innovation, they decided to standardize the first letter for the three words by replacing the C by a K. This gave the name “Ku Klux Klan or KKK”.
After the creation of this group and in a rapid manner, the Ku Klux Klan will transform itself into a kind of secret resistance army in the southern United States. In 1867, a former Confederate cavalry chief named Nathan Bedford Forrest was appointed head of the organization. He will draft a Constitution that will set the rules and functioning of the KKK. However, Forrest’s intentions to “advocate the superiority of the white race” are in total disagreement with the values of the group, which claims to be humanitarian and patriotic. Subsequently, an organization chart was created with Forrest at its head as the first “Great Wizard”. Its long-term objective is to ensure that the Ku Klux Klan has a strong influence on politics. He even gave another name to the KKK as a subterfuge: the “Invisible Empire of the South” and he invited all those who had refused the defeat of the war against the North to join them.
Forrest’s call seemed to have been heard as other people from other states were recruited by the Klan and in turn created other branches of the Ku Klux Klan, such as the Knights of the White Camellia in Louisiana or the Knights of the Rising Sun in Texas. The “Great Wizard” will travel all over the country by holding secret meetings with the leaders of each branch and will orchestrate several actions towards the black population. Thus several pregnant women were gutted and men were also castrated and it would also appear that all those who supported or educated these men and women of colour are also targeted by the Klan.
The organization’s misdeeds were felt from a national point of view and when it learned that the Presidency in Washington was on the case, Forrest decided in 1869 to dissolve the organization. Subsequently, a law was passed prohibiting the organization of the Ku Klux Klan and its violent practices in 1877. Despite this measure, the message of the Klan seemed to bear fruit because the principle of racial segregation was imposed in all States in order to cope with the mass arrival of former slaves in search of work.
The rebirth of the Klan:
We hear again about the Ku Klux Klan from 1915 onwards following the release of David Wark Griffith’s film Birth of a Nation which is an adaptation of Thomas Dixon’s literary work entitled The Man of the Clan, which against all odds has proved to be such a success that a person named William Joseph Simmons will use the success of this film to bring together a few people who share the same ideas as the founders of the first Klan to create the second KKK (for Thanksgiving) which is more modern than its predecessor.
Indeed, even if it retains the same so-called racist values of the former, it will take into account a new problem that will spearhead this new movement: the rejection of immigration that is not “northern European” and non-protestant, the only difference is that the latter is considered legal. Indeed, the organization has unexpected support, that of the then President of the United States Woodrow Wilson, who has the particularity of being progressive, in other words, he is in favour of recognizing the free determination of peoples, which is an international public right. In addition, most of President Wilson’s successors will also share the same ideas as President Wilson.
Thus, the Ku Klux Klan has become in the space of a few years an important movement of patriotic protest and will count from the 1920s on more than 5 million members, thus becoming a political force that no one can ignore.
Nevertheless, the violence of the first movement in the 19th century is still present in the new Klan and has even increased since it is not only the black population that is targeted by its attacks, but also Catholics, immigrants and the Jewish population. Some people were found branded with a red iron by the three letters K or tar-coated and covered with feathers and then tied to tree branches to be publicly lynch-marked. It is following these numerous acts of violence that the movement will lose the support of a large number of political leaders, there will even be new measures that would prohibit members of the clan from being masked except on the occasion of certain holidays such as Mardi Gras. It is also indirectly because of his actions by the Klan that the corruption of some political leaders was discovered and compared to those of the mafia.
Faced with all its acts considered terrorist and in order to also fight the 1929 economic crisis, a Commission was created against the Ku Klux Klan in which their activities would be judged as anti-American, and therefore ironically unpatriotic.
In addition, it would appear that there are tensions between the members of the Klan as the Second World War approaches, following the desire of some members to forge links with the Nazis. But this proved to be a bitter failure, particularly following the attack by the Japanese air force (allied with the Axis forces, of which Nazi Germany was a member) on Pearl Harbor, declaring war on the United States, which would join the Allied forces.
The second Klan was dissolved in 1944, notably following unpaid taxes leading to a judicial liquidation of the organization.
Creation of small groups and export of ideals to other countries:
After the end of the Second World War, several people tried to recreate a third Klan movement, but this was unsuccessful because a large part of the American population associated them with far-right political movements.
However, some small groups (or small groups) will be launched and will succeed until today in surviving. They continue to fight for the same ideas as their predecessors.
It also seems that the Ku Klux Klan has experienced exports to other countries, such as Canada, but as in the United States, its fields of action are limited or even anecdotal.
Featured image credit: Mc Clatchy