On 7 January 2005, Edgar Ray Killen, former head of the Ku Klux Klan, was brought to a tribunal in Philadelphia for the murder of three civil rights activists. A crime dating back to 1964! The racist organization was born after the Civil War. His ghosts still haunt America…
On December 24, 1865, many American are preparing to celebrate Christmas in a country that has just suffered several years of trauma. The civil war has just shaken the country by opposing the protectionist and egalitarian North against the free trade and slavery South.
In the presidential elections of November 1860, the victory of the Republican Lincoln – acquired from the conceptions of the Northern States – was the spark that ignites the fire, after years of rising tensions between these two development models. The War lasted from April 12, 1861 to April 9, 1865. It resulted in the death of more than 600,000 soldiers, the assassination of President Lincoln on April 15, 1865 and a victory for the North paving the way for the abolition of slavery.
This abolition will be effective on 18 December 1865 thanks to the entry into force of the 13th amendment to the United States Constitution.
All 4 million black slaves are now freed by the right of servitude. But in a South deeply traumatized by the prospect of the end of white supremacy and humiliated by defeat, groups refuse this new deal.
In this defeated South, plagued by unemployment and poverty, the young old warriors of the Confederation were trying to overcome boredom. On December 24, in Pulaski, the obscure capital of Tennessee, six of them Jones, McCord, Reed, Kennedy, Lester, and Crowe met to found a non-political association.
Respecting the tradition of student clubs, the comrades gave the community a mysterious name. A former member of Kentucky Centre College, Kennedy had the Greek word kuklos meaning “circle”; Crowe split it in two and changed the final, obtaining “Ku Klux”; observing that the founders were of Scottish descent, Lester proposed adding an evocation of the “clan” by harmonizing it with the general spelling. Crowe finds it amusing to disguise the members, as well as their horses, with the sheets and pillowcases stolen from one of their hosts’ houses. The Ku Klux Klan KKK has just been born….
What started as a joke will soon change in nature. The purpose of the masked parades, led by the six comrades, was to terrorize the uneducated and superstitious Blacks, convinced that they would encounter the ghosts who had died in battle. The Klan worked to overthrow governments that followed republican policies in the South, through violence against African-American leaders.
This was an unexpected opportunity for the impoverished Southerners to put back to work on the plantations the four million blacks that Lincoln had freed by the Proclamation of Emancipation of January 1, 1863! The hooded men don’t need any more to continue their masquerade. Under the pretext of maintaining order, they play at frightening blacks by using various ways to prove the reality of their supernatural powers: skeleton bones hidden under the sheet to shake hands with former astonished slaves, skillfully masked and then suddenly withdrawn squash …
The Klan thus acquired a solid reputation in the region. To avoid denunciations, secrecy becomes an essential component of the small community, complemented by the anonymity guaranteed by the hoods, the ruthless initial selection and the punishment of the inappropriate candidate for his curiosity by being locked in a barrel that is sent to roll down the hill!
Mitigated by the prospect of anti-Black bullying Committed with impunity, candidates from the surrounding cities flocked to the area.
It was those in Athens Alabama – where northern teachers treated black students as equals to whites – who first introduced physical punishment, by plunging a black man who had been seen riding a horse with a teacher into an icy spring. In less than a year, the “Athenians” were followed by hundreds of other more or less autonomous groups. The more the Klan develops, the wider the range of violence increases. In early 1867, in Nashville Tennessee, Pulaski’s nucleus, a little overwhelmed by events, tried to regain control of operations. It adopts a proclamation of the fundamental principles of the Klan defined as a “chivalrous, humanitarian, merciful and patriotic institution”. An organization chart is drawn up, a kind of fantasized medieval hierarchy, establishing the various subsidiaries; the rules and the ten questions put to the applicants are written. According to Moli?re, each state becomes a kingdom governed by a Great Dragon; each district is a dominion, led by a Great Titan; each county or province is placed under the authority of a Great Giant. The whole forms the “Invisible Empire” dominated by the Great Wizard.
The sacred duty of every klanist is “to maintain the supremacy of the white race in this republic”.
Are blacks really men? a goal justified by the sacrosanct “physiology” and a rudimentary theology: “The Creator, by raising us above the ordinary level of humans, wanted to give us over the lower races a power that no human law can permanently remove from us. “Political result: although swearing allegiance to the American Constitution, of which he claims to be the exclusive heir as a white man, the klanist swears to “preserve” himself from the laws of the federal government, whose power is declared “arbitrary and illicit”. The breach of legality is consummated. The Klan becomes an underground counter-power.
Supported by the majority of Southern Whites, composed of “uncomfortable types” recruited from all social classes, the Klan owes its effectiveness above all to its senior dignitaries, most of whom are former Confederate officers.
During elections, its activity consists of forcing Blacks, through impromptu night visits with lashes and death threats, to vote Democratic. Republicans are likened to enemies of the North or to abstain. The strategy pays off as the black electorate gradually transfers its votes to the lists supported by the Klan.
During the first half of 1868, the Great Wizard travelled through his States calling for mobilization. Each of his passages is followed by a wave of violence. Replying to a journalist from Cincinnati, Forrest explained: “Niggers held night meetings, came and went, became very insolent and all the people of the South throughout the state were very worried. “He is careful not to condemn the expeditious justice of his own activists who, in the name of the “concern” of American citizens, illegally extract black prisoners from their dungeons and hang them from trees….
The Klan, on behalf of its reasoning that the “Negro”, lazy, versatile, incapable of economy, is by its nature devoted to slavery, attacks blacks. This is the case of Perry Jeffers, who lives with his wife and seven sons on a plantation in Georgia as a tenant farmer. He enjoys an excellent reputation with his boss. Anyway, the Klan decides to make him pay for his success. One of the Jeffers sons retaliated to the attack: a dead man on the Klan side. In Jeffers’ absence, the “knights” of the Klan returned in force, hung his wife and shot and burned his youngest child at a high pyre with the furniture of his house. Fortunately, the wife was saved at the last minute by Dr. Darden, who was killed by the Klan. Panicked, Jeffers tried to escape and took the train with his sons, but his wagon was stormed by klanists, who made them get off at the last stop in Georgia. A few hours later, their bodies were found riddled with bullets. In the history of the Klan, there are hundreds of such murders.
And more precisely the teachers from the North, who teach blacks in the southern states. Terrible danger: if blacks learn, the return to the golden age of slavery is impossible! Because to fear the instruction of Blacks, is it not already to admit, at heart, that Blacks have in them the same capacities as Whites? So, it would all be a question of education and social level? Young teachers are then considered traitors, responsible for decadence. Hence insults, threatening letters, formal notices: “Before the end of the next quarter, disappear, unholy teacher of the Negroes! Disappear before it’s too late! The punishment awaits you and horrors such that no man could survive them. “Anonymous letter.
Schools burned down, teachers looted, murders. Many are leaving. Some idealists persist in staying. John Dunlap, principal of First Colored School, is one of them. Not for long: “There were about fifty of them on horseback and armed with guns. They were all masked; so were their horses. …] They appeared outside my door around ten o’clock in the evening. They shot me twice through the window. “The klanists sequestered him and led him several hundred meters away: “They stood me up in the middle of the road and pulled my pants down, then rolled my shirt over my head and tied it up. So, except for eight of them, they each gave me five lashes. Always the same blackmail: the chief told me he would no longer whip me if I left the state.” Dunlap, open wounds, leaves him without delay.
Klan leader Nathan Bedford Forrest boasted that the Klan was a nationwide organization of 550,000 men and that he could muster 40,000 Klansmen within five days. However, the Klan had no membership rosters, no chapters, and no local officers, so it was difficult for observers to judge its membership. It had created a sensation by the dramatic nature of its masked forays and because of its many murders.
In 1870, a federal grand jury determined that the Klan was a “terrorist organization” and issued hundreds of indictments for crimes of violence and terrorism. Klan members were prosecuted, and many fled from areas that were under federal government jurisdiction, particularly in South Carolina. Many people not formally inducted into the Klan had used the Klan’s costume to hide their identities when carrying out independent acts of violence. Forrest called for the Klan to disband in 1869, arguing that it was “being perverted from its original honorable and patriotic purposes, becoming injurious instead of subservient to the public peace”.
The Klan does not back down from any crime, not even the liquidation of Republican Senator Stephens, stabbed in the middle of a courtroom! Faced with such abuses, the government decided to react firmly. On April 20, 1871, General Grant pass a draconian law, known as the “Ku Klux Law”, which condemns the “invisible” brotherhood to death. Thousands of arrests were made, but unfortunately for lack of evidence, most of the detainees are released, but the defeat is still bitter. Klan members are scattered in new organizations: White League, Shot Gun Plan, Rifle Club. They perpetuate their violence through “lynching”. But the main Klan which is found in 1865 was totally destroyed in 1871.
The return to political activity was unexpected, with the release in 1915 of D. W. Griffith’s controversial film, The Birth of a Nation. In this famous silent film work, the director “does not hide his sympathy for the Southerners and openly takes sides with the Ku Klux Klan. The President of the United States himself, Woodrow Wilson, supports the film.
For one of the spectators, William J. Simmons, it was a revelation. Simmons used the film’s success and the popular discontent due to recent immigration to revive the KKK. On Thanksgiving Day, the self-proclaimed “Colonel” gathered a few of his followers atop Stone Mountain, east of Alabama. He set fire to a huge pine cross announcing the establishment of the second Ku Klux Klan in 1915.
The “new formula” Klan follows the strategy that made the success of the old one: white supremacy and anti-Black racism. He added to this the violent rejection of Catholicism as invasive, which is called the Anti-Catholicism. Recent immigration also encourages it to cultivate anti-Semitism and xenophobia. But this renaissance is very similar to a commercial operation. Each member pays a contribution, takes out an insurance policy, buys his klanist suit with symbols on it… And above all, unlike the former Klan, the Great Wizard tries to legalize the structure and does not hesitate to offer his services to the public authorities.
However, the KKK did not really develop until 1920, when Simmons’ two new partners, former journalist Edward Clarke and wealthy widow Elizabeth Tyler, joined the scene. Objective: to divert in their favor the strong isolationist current that crosses the country. America first! An expert in organization and advertising, Clarke became Chief of Staff. He established the headquarters (HQ) in Atlanta, reinstated roughly the old subdivisions and the classic initiation ritual, multiplied the parades where he burned gigantic crosses, and gave a fixed salary to all those who held positions in the Klan.
Within a year, the South was ” Regained”, and, new, the North – where poor blacks crowded into suburban neighborhoods – was seriously tempted, particularly Indiana, Oklahoma and Oregon. Republicans and city bourgeois are seduced. The number of klanists is soon estimated at five million! Like a holding company, the Klan takes advantage of popular support to diversify its activities: publication of periodicals and brochures, building purchases, taking over Lanier University…. Alcoholic, Simmons was deposed and replaced by the 32nd degree Freemason dentist Hiram W. Evans, from Dallas, who became Imperial Wizard and also took the opportunity to dismiss Clarke and Tyler.
In 1924, when the legislative assembly was renewed, eleven governors and many senators were appointed by the Klan. The following year, a law restricting immigration was passed. To demonstrate its strength, the Klan is organizing a monster parade in the capital.
With the relative impartiality of the police and with the support of many local officials, Klan, armed with weapons, increased its act of the cruelty. The “Negroes” he hunted, or those who fraternized with them, including lawyers, politicians and pastors, had their hair shaved, their foreheads marked with the three klanic initials,whipped, or coated with tar. Introducing itself as the guardian of public morals, the Klan also “cares” for light women, crooked doctors, prostitutes and various outsiders. The whole is dotted with appalling crimes, such as those of Daniels and Richards, crushed by a public works machine… In response, Louisiana passed an anti-mask law prohibiting the wearing of masks outside All Saints’ Day and Mardi Gras, published the list of Klan members, etc., and then passed by other states.
The KKK’s loss of respectability, combined with growing internal divisions, thus leads to the erosion of its audience, even if it continues to carry out punitive expeditions. In the 1930s, Nazism exerted a certain attraction on the KKK. Dr.Colescott, who bought the Klan from Evans in 1939, believes there is a card to play on the German side. As a result, the Nordland camp sealed for a time the alliance of the klanists with the German-American Bund of the State of New Jersey. But it shattered after Pearl Harbor. The invisible empire still had to be dealt the final blow: The Direct Contributions Department asked it for $685,000 unpaid since 1920. Unable to settle his debt, the Klan died for the second time in 1944.
Despite many attempts at resurrection at a more local than national level, the KKK was no longer as successful as it had been before the war.
Mentalities are changing. The black soldier has shown that he is capable of spilling his blood on an equal footing with the white man… Finally, the “traitor” Stetson Kennedy contributes to demystifying the organization, by revealing all its secrets in his book “J’ai appartenu au Ku Klux Klan”…
However, some klanists persist and temporarily arouse renewed interest among the frustrated White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASPs), who no longer make up the majority of the American population. In the 1950s, the promulgation of the law against segregation in public schools once again raised passions and the crosses were seen lighting up again: it’s the shy appearance of the third Klan which is still existing till the present. Fighting, house blasting and new crimes followed, killing 29 people between 1956 and 1963, including 11 whites, during race riots. The klanists try to retrain themselves in anti-communism, by attacking the Indians or by demeaning their fanatical anti-Catholicism. But nothing can be done about it, the decline of the Klan has been underway since the late 1960s, when it already has only about ten thousand members.
Despite several attempts, the Ku Klux Klan could never be classified as a terrorist organization, since it does not officially exist. This old supremacist movement now has 8000 to 12000 members, and guess what: it supports Donald Trump, who takes office as President of the United States in 2017, and is the 20th and most recent President from the Republican side.
The following table shows the change in the Klan’s estimated membership over time.
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