The Ku Klux Klan, simply known as the KKK or the Klan, is the most notorious and feared right-wing group in American history. While Hitler and Nazism are viewed as the pinnacle of evil in our society, it is the Klan that carries the most weight. This is most likely due to its native presence and the media’s obsession with it.
Contrary to popular belief, the Klan has not had a long, unbroken history of continuous violence. Instead, it has come in the form of many different waves as a reactionary force, with specific goals and organizational structures, against specific social issues within each era of its 153 year long existence. There have been three major waves of the Klan simply being referred to as the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd waves.
The first wave of the Klan rose to prominence during the Reconstruction era. It was founded in Pulaski, Tennessee on December 24, 1865. With Nathan Bedford Forrest eventually being named its first Grand Wizard, the first Klan began as a harmless fraternal social club for Confederate veterans. It adopted outlandish costumes and sought to amuse the public more than anything else, creating a cascade of mystique. However, many disenfranchised white Southerners and former Confederate soldiers began to view the Klan’s ceremonies and imagery as a means for combating oppressive Yankee occupation, forcing Carpetbaggers out of office, and suppressing Negros’ newfound aggression towards whites once the Union army had their backs. They adopted the Klan imagery and began creating many local chapters throughout the South while refusing Forrest’s calls for centralization. This led to a slew of white resistance to Reconstruction and political oppression across Dixie as Southerners had now found a means of doing so effectively without revealing their identities and without organizational aid. It became nothing short of a guerrilla war, leading to the killing or intimidating Carpetbagging politicians, fighting Union military personnel, and suppressing uppity white harassing blacks all across the South.
–Reconstruction klansman in full regalia
The Klan uniforms at the time were more like costumes than anything resembling genuine uniformity. They were initially designed to build a sense of amazement and mystery, often being designed to look like wizards, but as the Klan became more violent, the design became used to instill fear among the superstitious blacks. No costume looked the same, and everyone made their own. Many had burlap sacks for masks with symbols and crosses on blacks clothes while others looked like red wizards. Many costumes contained horns, fake facial hair, flashy metals, and sometimes women’s dresses.
-Three Klansmen arrested in Tishomingo County, Mississippi, in 1871
A similar organization to the Klan that rose at around the same time, based primarily in Louisiana, was the Knights of the White Camelia. It tended to attract members from the upper classes of society as opposed to the Klan’s poorer base. These two groups together spearheaded the initial phase of white resistance to Yankee oppression. This opposition didn’t last long however. As legends spread about the Klan’s violence, opposition to it began to rise, and the U.S. government began to take notice. The government responded to the resistance with the Enforcement Act of 1870 and the Civil Rights Act of 1871. These acts made Reconstruction worse for Southerners leading to a stripping of Habeas Corpus and an increase in federal troops, especially in the more hotbed areas like South Carolina. In addition, Nathan Bedford Forrest, disgusted that the Klan he helped found and was the leader of had been hijacked by whites who wanted to utilize it for violence, called for its disbandment in 1869. This crackdown on the Klan led to its demise and end in 1871 while also bringing down the Knights of the White Camelia.
-A klansmen in wizard-looking attire in 1868. Note the fake facial hair on the hood
Despite the first Klan’s resistance to Reconstruction, it only managed to make matters worse for the South by bringing down a harsh hammer from the Northern government. Fortunately for Dixie, more pro-Southern groups would rise in the mid-1870s and continue the fight the Klan had started. They would mainly include the White League and the Redshirts. The Klan got the ball rolling, and once they could no longer fight, these other groups picked up the slack and ultimately managed to restore Southerners’ control of their own land with the Compromise of 1877, effectively ending Reconstruction. The first Klan was the only Klan to actually be Southern Nationalist and was essential in freeing Dixie from harsh Northern oppression.
The second wave of the Klan was founded on Thanksgiving night 1915 at Stone Mountain, Georgia by William J. Simmons. Simmons had been inspired to create a fraternal organization resembling the image of the Klan that was represented in Tom Woodruff Jr.’s romantic novel “The Clansman” and its movie adaptation Birth of a Nation. This Klan was much more organized than the previous Klan, operating more like a business and organizing various social events. This wave of the Klan was much more ideologically driven than its previous incarnations and was much less “Southern” in its influence and purpose. This Klan espoused Protestant, pro-white, anti-immigration, American Nationalism and presented itself as pro-morality. During this time, Simmons developed the Klan’s image in the way it’s seen to. He gave it the rituals, the uniformity, the white robes, and the infamous cross burnings. It was able bring in millions of members and supporters through its effective use of advertisement and tapping to many of the issues of the time. America was rapidly liberalizing and endorsing degeneracy during this time, and many Americans opposed it severely.
-Cross burning in Tampa, Florida, in 1939
The types of people joining the Klan this time around were typically middle-class Protestants as opposed to the poor white Southerners of the first Klan. Many of these whites were drawn to the supposed pro-morality and staunch anti-immigrant ideologies that was espoused and were easily swayed by the many social events that the Klan produced. Interestingly, this Klan was not a “Southern” Klan. It had been founded there and was based there, but it’s most prominent success was found in the Midwest. The state with the highest number of members per capita was Indiana and many more were heavily embedded in places like Detroit, Michigan. Another surprising state to have such a high percentage of members was Oregon.
It was growing rapidly and peaked in the mid-1920s with as many as six million members. In 1925 they had their now infamous March on Washington. Despite the popularity and appearance of good intentions, a minority of members were simply using the organization to commit acts of violence. This disgusted many members of the group who began to leave in droves as the media constantly pushed out propaganda against the Klan. The opposition was endless, and no mainstream endorsements of the group were made despite many politicians being members. Another major factor in the second wave’s downfall was doxing and infiltration. This led many to flee the Klan rapidly as membership rosters were being unveiled to the public. By the time the great depression had hit, the second Klan era ended. It didn’t see a revival until the Civil Rights Era.
–The infamous march on Washington DC in 1925
The third and final major wave of the Ku Klux Klan began in the 1950s. This wave solidified the Klan’s notoriety as a violent group. This period was characterized by extreme violence on both the right-wing and the left-wing which involved a continuous stream of race riots throughout the country. The media, however, decided that it was only going to focus on the violence committed by Klansmen and no one else. In a similar fashion to the first wave, this wave was decentralized and had no connections to the second Klan apart from name. There were many chapters with their own names different goals but all of them focused on killing or intimidating enemies of racial separation and anti-miscegenation, with its most violent chapter being the Mississippi White Knights. While this Klan wave operated mostly in the South, it did not espouse Southern Nationalist view, but it was the first time the Klan began using the Confederate flag, souring the Dixie symbol’s reputation. Many of the most infamous Klan killings happened during this period, most notable the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama which killed four young black girls. Even though its violence was extreme and its presence constantly felt, the third wave rapidly dwindled down once Civil Rights legislation had been passed. The fight was over.
The following decades were not good to the KKK. It hit its lowest valley of members and chapters during the 70s, 80s, and 90s despite the constant media coverage and notoriety. The only major Klan activity during this time was David Duke’s chapter the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan. He had attempted to reform the Klan and guide it into a newer, cleaner period but ultimately failed. He eventually left it in 1979. Over the past couple decades, the Klan has begun to undergo Nazification, adopting skinhead symbols and imagery and endorsing the image of degeneracy. Since 2016, Klan chapters and membership have been on the rise, but nothing seems to have come from it. It doesn’t appear that there will be a fourth wave, and many right wingers today would prefer to join groups with better public image or vent their frustration online. Being that they are decentralized and wary of outsiders, these third wave groups are difficult to infiltrate and track. A side effect of the decentralization is the infighting and lack of unified purpose which keeps this Klan from ever making much of a comeback.
The infamous Ku Klux Klan’s history has been one of ebbs and flows. Throughout its on-again-off-again 153 year long existence, its three major waves have come with various purposes, images, and methods many of which are not explained accurately by the media. Despite its constant notoriety and media panics, the Klan appears to be on a continuous decline. It lacks a true unified purpose and is too engulfed in degeneracy to ever repair its image. While the various chapters may continue to exist for many more generations, it is doubtful that America will ever again experience the true revival and reign of the Invisible Empire.
As an explanation from the author, I’d like to say that I wrote this not to endorse the KKK but to instead give an overview of its history from a more objective perspective. My opinion of the different Klan waves varies. I believe the first Klan was comprised of Southern heroes who were continuing the fight against Yankee imperialistic occupation. I’m not a particularly huge fan of the second Klan’s American Nationalism, being that I am a Southern Nationalist, and find some of its acts of violence to have been a bit unnecessary within that period of American history. It should have focused on social issues and building up communities. If they’d have managed to purge the more violent members, they would have succeeded. I despise the third Klan. I agree that races should have remained separate, but the degeneracy that consumed the Klan during the civil rights era and the following decades is simply repulsive. It now draws in the most disgusting of individuals from obese weirdos to drug addicts and complete idiots. It will never succeed with an image like that. Any successful movement must improve the lives of its members and not make them worse. Their inability to cast aside their degenerate ways and improve their recruitment strategies does more than make them look bad; it makes the rest of us nationalists look bad as well.