Mark Twain once wrote, “The very ink with which all history is written is merely fluid prejudice.” This quote means so much by saying so little. What he means by this is that all history that has ever been recorded has been done so with prejudice. In the early days it would have been more towards the European immigrants,
the 19th century would have been more prejudice towards blacks and slaves, and in modern days it is more towards the Mexican immigrants. Some groups, however, have not changed their prejudice outlook along with history. The Ku Klux Klan is one of them. Throughout the course of history, the Ku Klux Klan, more commonly known as the KKK, has been one of the largest – as well as one of the most outspoken – groups against race and religion.
The first organized Klan first appeared in 1866, soon after the culmination of the Civil War. It was structured by veterans of the Confederate Army, and attracted a large group of followers. In its early days, though, the Klan was not merely an anti-black group. They were focused as much on putting down freed slaves as they were on intimidating Northern businessmen and Southern republicans, killing 1300 republican voters in 1868 alone. This first wave was stopped by Ulysses S. Grant in the early 70s by the Civil Rights Act of 1871. It had already begun to die out, though (Ku).
Many people were glad to see this group go, but unfortunately, in the early 20th century it made a sweeping comeback. The new Klan was not quite the same, though. Founded in 1915 by William Joseph Simmons, the Second Ku Klux Klan was a formal membership organization (Ku). It had both a national and a state structure, and would pay men all over the country to organize their own chapters. The success of the new KKK was wildly unexpected. In the 20’s, 15% of the nations eligible members belonged to the Klan (Ku). The second KKK preached more about racism, anti-Catholicism, nativism, and anti-Semitism. Existing more in the South and Midwest than anywhere else, the Klan’s membership exceeded 4 million at times, and in some areas consisted of up to 40% of the eligible male population (Ku).
The Klan really started to take control in the 1920’s. Elected officials with KKK ties controlled Tennessee, Indiana, Oklahoma, and Oregon. Many Southern legislatures were also Klan influenced (Ku). In 1924, the Klan secretly tried to take over Anaheim, California. They somehow took over the City Council without revealing that any of them were Klansmen, but were then voted out by a recall election. Later in 1924, at the Democratic National Convention in New York City, the Klan pitted William McAdoo against New York Governor Al Smith, a Catholic (Ku). After much deliberation, both men backed out of the running, giving the Klan a supposed success. They no longer had the unwanted candidate in the running, and temporarily had no worry of their group’s elimination. On the nation’s birth later that year, there was an enormous gathering in New Jersey, where Klansmen burned crosses and effigies of Smith to celebrate their victory (Ku).
Alabama was one of the states which had much political pressure from the Klan. Differing from the majority of KKK groups around America, the Alabama organization also had genuine political dreams, not just racial hatred. The Alabama Klansmen were advocates of better public schools, effective prohibition enforcement, expanded road construction, and other “progressive” political measures. By 1925, the Klan had become a powerful political figure in the state. Hugo Black was elected senator in 1926 and later appointed to the Supreme Court; Bibb Graves, a former chapter head, won the governors office and later became one of the most progressive governors in Alabama’s history (Ku). Throughout his term, he pushed for increased education funding, better public health, new highway construction, and pro-labor legislation. Unfortunately, this gave Klan members a sense of unjust power. They committed many crimes of both physical and mental terror over the course of a few years. Finally, a conservative named Grover C. Hall Sr. started a counterattack. He attacked the Klan for their intolerance to race and religion through editorials and articles published in his Montgomery Advertiser. Hall was later awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his efforts. In 1928, the state voted for Catholic Al Smith for president and by 1930, the Klan of Alabama’s membership had dropped to under six thousand (Ku).
After the Alabama collapse, as well as the rape of Madge Oberholtzer by David Stephenson – the Grand Dragon of Indiana, as well as 14 other states – Klan membership began to drop rapidly (Ku). By the 1930s, the Klan had begun to drop out of political view and was losing everything. In 1939, Grand Wizard Hiram Evans sold the Klan to James Colescott and Samuel Green (Ku). Colescott’s association with Nazi-sympathizer groups further damaged the Klan. Involvement in the 1943 Detroit Race Riot’s as well as efforts to disrupt the American war effort in World War II caused great government grief. In 1944, the IRS filed a report of $685,000 in back taxes against the Klan, which forced Colescott to dissolve the organization later that year (Ku).
Although the Klan was no longer an official organization after the 40’s, association continues today in small remaining groups. Membership went from more than one in 30 people in 1920 to less than one in 100,000 people in 2005 (Census). Since its elimination, the Klan has been involved in many brutal incidents, including the bombing of an Alabama church, which killed four young girls, the murders of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner in Mississippi, and a mass school bus bombing in Michigan, to stop desegregation of schools. “Today the only known former member of the Klan to hold a Federal office in the United States is Senator Robert Byrd, who says he ‘deeply regrets’ joining the Klan over half a century ago, when he was about 24 years old. There are currently no known members of the Klan who also hold a Federal office,”(Ku). The Ku Klux Klan has played an immensely important part in the development of America. Although not necessarily a good role, they did show America what racism can do. They encouraged many to join them, but turned even more against them by showing how ruthless racism could become. On looking back, the lessons the Klan has taught America about how racism hurts everyone are very valuable and will not soon be forgotten.
“Ku Klux Klan.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 16 Apr 2006, 16:50 UTC. 16 Apr 2006, 22:18
Census of United States. US Census Bureau. 2000. April 12th, 2006