The “Invisible Empire” of the Ku Klux Klan was an empire that evolved from the fear of change and from the hate of one’s fellow man (Alexander xxii). Following the U. S. Civil War, the South was left desolated and destroyed, with the people of the South being gripped with fear and frustration over the bleak conditions and the drastic changes in the political power structure of the Deep South (Indiana University 1).
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” (Indiana University 1). The Federal Government was directly linked with the governments of the Southern states as the radical members of Congress attempted to “destroy the white power structure of the Rebel states” (Spartacus Educational 1).
The Freeman’s Bureau was established by the Federal Government in March of 1865, the goal of which was to protecting the interests of former slaves by providing schools, hospitals, and housing (Spartacus Educational 1). The South was turned upside down, with a culture of people being given their natural born rights for the very first time. The scene was set in the mid 1800’s for the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. The origins of the Ku Klux Klan have been traced back to December of 1865 in Pulaski, Tennessee where six Confederate veterans sought out a new form of amusement (Chalmers 8).
The organization was not originally intended to be a hate organization; rather it was a secret club, or secret society, founded on small-town boredom (Indiana University 1). The six originators were scholars and derived the name “Ku Klux Klan” from the Greek word for circle, kuklos, representing their unbridled unity (Chalmers 9). The original members rode through the streets on horseback covered in white sheets terrorizing the local populations for entertainment.
The Klan soon attracted much attention and appeal due to their secretiveness and spread rapidly throughout the South. In 1867 the “loose allegiance” of Klan members met in Nashville, Tennessee with the intention of gaining unity, purpose, and a proper authority structure (Chalmers 9). It was at this time that the Klan’s actions turned from childish pranks to extreme violence against freed black slaves. This transformation occurred soon after, and directly because of, the first Reconstruction Act of 1867 (Spartacus Educational 1).
The first Reconstruction Act displaced state governments and divided the South into five military districts as well as gave black males the right to vote with the ratification of the fourteenth amendment (Spartacus Educational 1). This Act allowed for states to reenter the Union only upon their ratifying the fourteenth amendment and guaranteeing of adult male suffrage. President Johnson immediately vetoed the bill; yet, the Radical Republicans re-passed the bill the same day (Spartacus Educational 1).
As blacks gained the right to vote and therefore a voice and degree of influence in Southern politics, the Klan turned its attentions to destroying “the basis of Negro political effectiveness by driving out its leaders, white and black” and to securing “the political impotence and social subordination of the Negro” (Chalmers 14). The fundamental creed of the Klan became white supremacy. Nighttime “ghost rides” were used to intimidate and terrify blacks that wanted to exercise their “new rights and freedom” (Indiana University 2).
The main goal of the Klan quickly became keeping blacks from voting and further toppling over the political system that had been advantaging white males for decades. “During the next two years Klansmen wearing masks, white cardboard hats and draped in white sheets, tortured and killed black Americans and sympathetic whites. Immigrants, who they blamed for the election of Radical Republicans, were also targets of their hatred” (Spartacus Educational 1). The Klan spread quickly through the Southern states ensuring the stability of white Democrat power structure in the local governments.
In some counties the Klan became the de facto law, “an invisible government that state officials could not control” (Indiana University 4). In 1871 Congress passed a tough anti-Klan law. Under this law, Southerners lost their authority over crimes such as assault, robbery, and murder and the President was given the power to declare martial law in states where Klan related violence escalated or continued (Indiana University 5). The laws lessened the enthusiasm for the Klan yet, was not the cause for its disbanding. By the 1870’s “white
Southerners had retaken control of most Southern state governments and didn’t need the Klan as much as before” (Indiana University 5). The Klan’s terror and intimidation tactics were successful in keeping many black voters away from the polls, while black officeholders were hanged and beaten sending a signal to their black supporters. The Southern Democrats easily won elections in the regained one-party system and soon “passed laws taking away many rights that blacks had won during Reconstruction” (Indiana University 5).
The Klan accomplished its political agenda of white supremacy in the South and therefore disbanded as an organized body by the early to mid 1870’s. While the Klan no longer acted as a unified body, the violence continued through to the rebirth of the Klan in 1915. A Spanish American War veteran, preacher, salesman, and dreamer by the name of William J. Simmons reestablished the Ku Klux Klan in 1915 (Chalmers 28). Simmons claims to have had visions of restoring the Klan since early childhood (Chalmers 28).
Simmons used advertisements for the movie The Birth of a Nation that was to open in the fall of 1915 in Atlanta, Georgia to promote his dream of a new Ku Klux Klan. On Thanksgiving Eve of 1915 Simmons and a small group of members from various other fraternal orders gathered together on the top of Stone Mountain, located outside of Atlanta, wherein a cross was burned representing the awakening of the Invisible Empire from its dormancy of “half a century to take up a new task and fulfill a new mission for humanity’s good and to call back to mortal habitation the good angel of practical fraternity among men” (Chalmers 30).
When The Birth of a Nation opened the following week, a local Atlanta newspaper carried Simmons’ announcement of “The World’s Greatest Secret, Social, Patriotic, Fraternal, Beneficiary Order” next to the advertisement for the movie thus giving the new Ku Klux Klan the fuel it needed to reorganize (Chalmers 30). The new organization quickly gained ninety members and a steady flow of solid middle class members. Among the first were Robert Ramspect, future congressman from Georgia, and Paul Etheridge, a lawyer and long time member of Georgia’s Fulton County Board of Commissioners of Roads and Revenues (Chalmers 30).
The newly formed Klan was developed by Simmons as a ploy to make money (Indiana University 6). New members were charged membership fees and sold life insurance policies by the former salesman, Simmons (Chalmers 30). The new Klan stressed “100 per cent Americanism and the supremacy of the Caucasian race” which to the new members simply meant, “keeping the Negro in his place” (Chalmers 30). By 1920 the Klan’s membership was only a few thousand until Simmons met Edward Young Clarke and Elizabeth Tyler, who together represented the Southern Publicity Association (Chalmers 31).
The Southern Publicity Association agreed to advertise for the Klan and would receive eighty per cent of the profits brought in by the Klan for payment. The promoters used a new aggressive sales pitch, which was not only pro America, but anti-black, anti-Jew, and anti-Catholic (Indiana University 6). The list of enemies soon grew to include Asians, immigrants, nightclubs, pre marital sex, and other “scandalous behavior” (Indiana University 7). The new tactics were an instant success due to organizers scouring the nation “probing for the communities’ fears and then exploiting them” (Indiana University 7).
The enrollment in the Klan grew to almost 100,000 people by the summer of 1921. Simmons’ goal of making exorbitant amounts of money paid off as each member was required to pay a ten dollar membership fee. Edward Young Clarke furthered the profits of the business by launching Klan manufacturing and publishing firms and by investing in real estate (Indiana University 7). The organization continued to grow and the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan became incorporated, and grew further as the Gate City Manufacturing Company of Atlanta, Georgia, was established as the sole manufacturer of Klan paraphernalia (Chalmers 35).
As the Klan grew, so did its problems. “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” (Indiana University 7). Violence flared out and quickly grew out of control as tar-and-feathers, whippings, and other violently gruesome acts such as using acid to brand the letter “KKK” on the foreheads of their Jewish and Black opponents became common practice (Indiana University 7).
The police, judges, and political figures turned their heads to the “secretive” violence being blatantly committed. The group was further split as numerous articles were published in newspapers all over the United States that brought to light the financially manipulative, immoral, and violent acts of the members of the Klan. While many members were turned off by the truth of the Klan, this was a small number in comparison to the hordes of new members that joined soon after the articles were published.
Simmons later spoke of this saying; “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” (Indiana University 8). The Klan persistently grew even after an internal rift that led to the ousting of the founder, Simmons, for Hiram Wesley Evans a dentist from Texas in 1924. Under the rule of Evans the Klan promoted itself as “an organization dedicated to defending the morals of the nation” (Indiana University 8).
However, this organization committed to “morals” hypocritically used violent methods to control and punish those whom they felt to be immoral. “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” (Indiana University 8). As the violence of the Klan grew so did its grip on Southern and Western politics, the two methods of maintaining white supremacy went hand in hand. In 1922 Earl Mayfield, a member of the Klan, was elected to the U. S. Senate over two Jewish competitors due to the strong support from his fellow Klansmen.
The Klan has also been credited with helping to elect governors in the states of Georgia, Alabama, California, and even Oregon (Indiana University 9). Politics was a very important part of the Klan’s power, because it allowed them to achieve their objectives without drawing negative attention, as the extreme violence often did. The Klan became very active in many Southern states including Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. In Georgia “Paul S.
Etheridge found that being the Imperial Klonsel and the chief of staff of the Klan did not interfere with his re-election of the Fulton County Board of Commissioners” (Chalmers 71). The editor of the official Klan newspaper also was a member of the Georgia state legislature. In 1922 the Klan’s involvement with Georgia politics grew with the election of the former Attorney General Clifford Walker to Governor. At this time the state superintendents of agriculture and education both had the backing of the Klan and Klan leaders “conferred with Governor Walker and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, Richard B. Russell, on state policy” (Chalmers71).
Through politics the Klan was able to achieve many of their initiatives in the state of Georgia in the 1920’s. The great successes in the field of politics led to the discouragement of violence due to the unwanted opposition that came with the violence. As the Klan became more entangled in politics it became less associated with violence and vigilantism (Alexander 79). Politics became a new way for the Klan to spread its white supremacy viewpoints. In Alabama the Klan obtained great political power in the mid 1920’s.
It was necessary for a candidate to have the favor of the Klan in order to be elected to office. Bibb Graves was elected to Governor and Charles C. McCall was elected to state Attorney General; both of which were members of the Klan and had their full support. “Of the approximately thirty-two thousand voters in Birmingham’s Jefferson County, the Klan was generally credited with fifteen to eighteen thousand” (Chalmers 79). The Klan controlled the votes and the jobs, influenced top state officials, and maintained the memberships of many political officials and police officers in Birmingham, Alabama (Chalmers 80).
The state of Alabama retained over 50,000 paying members of the Klan and thus had a strong and supportive voting base. In 1926 Hugo Black was able to benefit from this support by being elected to the U. S. senate (Chalmers 80). In the early 1920’s the Klan controlled the Courts and police forces of Louisiana as well. They watched phones, read mail, and searched strangers. Governor John M. Parker lost control of the state and was “distrustful of the security of his own mail and telephones” (Chalmers 59).
David M. Chalmers, a Distinguished Alumni Professor of the University of Florida, describes the desperation of the situation by saying, “When the Democratic governor of a Southern state has to ask a Republican Administration to help preserve law and order, conditions are indeed serious” (Chalmers 59). The dominated the Morehouse Parish, in Northern Louisiana, was extremely dominated by the Klan. The postmaster, sheriff, deputy, prosecuting attorney, and police force all became members of the Klan in 1921 (Chalmers 60).
Following the brutal torture and murder of two men in Louisiana, Governor Parker and his Attorney General went to Washington D. C. to consult with the President and Justice Department to seek aid (Chalmers 62). Federal agents were sent to the state and though surrounded by the constants thread of Klansmen were able to dig up significant amounts of information concerning the deaths of the two men. However, the national administration felt that it did not have the jurisdiction to go further with the case (Chalmers 62). Governor Parker did not let this deter him from his mission against the Klan. He publicly denounced the Klan at the Governors’ Conference in Hot Springs, Virginia, in Chicago, and cities of Louisiana.
He also brought members of the Klan up on murder charges for the murder of Watt Daniels and Richards. However, his efforts did not stop the Klan. “Two successive grand juries, whose membership contained known and alleged Klansmen, refused to indict anyone” (Chalmers 63). In 1924 the Klan lost much of its power in the state of Louisiana due to local candidates taking a stand on the Klan issue. Henry Fuqua, a Protestant from Baton Rouge won the runoff for Governor, winning with a campaign platform of unmasking the Klan (Chalmers 64).
The passage of three main bills out of the state House and Senate greatly inhibited the power of the Klan. The first of these “required the annual filing of membership lists by all such organization. If any member attended a meeting of a society which had not turned in such a list, he was committing a crime” (Chalmers 63) and was to be imprisoned. The Second bill “prohibited the wearing of masks in public on occasions other that Halloween, school affairs, minstrel shows, and Mardi Gras” (Chalmers 64). And the final bill made crimes such as simple threat, if made by a person wearing a mask, a felony.
Despite many Klansmen in the state House and Senate the bills only received three votes in opposition. The national Klan headquarters in Atlanta quickly expelled all those who voted for the passage of the bills, including two Grand Titans and the Speaker of the House (Chalmers 65). After the passage of these bills the Klan was critically wounded in Louisiana. In Arkansas the Klan was responsible for electing numerous members and associates to local offices and to the House of Representatives in Washington. In 1922 in the capital city of Little Rock, the Klan swept virtually every office (Chalmers 57).
Although not a Klansman, Governor Thomas C. McRae’s “friendly neutrality” (Chalmers 57) and his appointment of a Klansman as his secretary was sufficient enough to gain him the much desire support of the Klan. Politicians would ally themselves with the Klan in order to gain the necessary support to win elections. By 1924 the Klan’s endorsement was so valuable that they conducted their own primaries in order to decide which Klansmen or close associates would be supported for the regular Democratic Primary (Chalmers 57).
Through politics the Klan was able to govern to on goings of yet another state. The Klan continued to terrorize the South through violence and politics up until the time of WWII. Following the Second World War the Klan as an organization once again died down yet left its ideals behind in Southern culture. The second reemergence of the Klan took place in the fifties and sixties due to the focus of the U. S. on the Civil Rights Movement.
On May 14, 1961 at the Trailways Bus terminal in Birmingham, Alabama, Howard K. Smith, a CBS radio correspondent reported on a “Freedom Ride” tragedy: “Toughs grabbed the passengers into alleys and corridors, pounding them with pipes, key rings, and with fists. One passenger (Jim Peck) was knocked down at my feet by twelve of the hoodlums, and his face was beaten and kicked until it was a bloody pulp” (Lewis 146). The crowd of violent club-wielding men was made up of member of the Ku Klux Klan who opposed the “Freedom Rides” wherein blacks and whites would ride on buses and trains together with the blacks in the front and the whites in the back.
During the mob violence not a policeman was in sight (Lewis 147). Years later, testimony before the U. S. Congress revealed that local Klan leaders received a promise from the Birmingham police that their mob would be given ample time to freely attack the passengers before the police would intervene (Lewis 147). The Klan had once again infiltrated the state governmental system gaining them freedom from the local police departments.