The Ku Klux Klan (Classroom Activity)

The first branch of the Ku Klux Klan was established in Pulaski, Tennessee, in May, 1866. A year later a general organization of local Klans was established in Nashville in April, 1867. Most of the leaders were former members of the Confederate Army and the first Grand Wizard was Nathan Forrest, an outstanding general during the American Civil War. 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. Between 1868 and 1870 the Ku Klux Klan played an important role in restoring white rule in North Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia.

At first the main objective of white supremacy organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan, the White Brotherhood, the Men of Justice, the Constitutional Union Guards and the Knights of the White Camelia was to stop black people from voting. After white governments had been established in the South the Ku Klux Klan continued to undermine the power of blacks. Successful black businessmen were attacked and any attempt to form black protection groups such as trade unions was quickly dealt with.

Colonel George W. Ashburn served in the Union Army during the American Civil War. At the end of the conflict, Ashburn returned to Columbus, Georgia and was appointed a judge by the military Governor, George G. Meade. Ashburn was the author of the provisions in the new Constitution that assured civil rights to blacks. He worked with the Freedmens Bureau and alongside African American leaders such as Henry McNeal Turner. On 21st March, 1868, Nathan Forrest, the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, held a meeting in Columbus. Nine days later he was assassinated by a group of masked men.

As soon as he heard of the murder, General Meade implemented martial law in Columbus, removing the mayor from office, and ordering the immediate arrest of all suspects. The trial of twenty prominent white residents of Columbus began on 29th June, 1868. On 21st July, Georgia agreed to ratify the 14th Amendment in exchange for General Meade's termination of the prosecution of the murder. All the men were freed and the case was closed.

Radical Republicans in Congress such as Benjamin Butler urged President Ulysses S. Grant to take action against the Ku Klux Klan. In 1870 he instigated an investigation into the organization and the following year a Grand Jury reported that: "There has existed since 1868, in many counties of the state, an organization known as the Ku Klux Klan, or Invisible Empire of the South, which embraces in its membership a large proportion of the white population of every profession and class. The Klan has a constitution and bylaws, which provides, among other things, that each member shall furnish himself with a pistol, a Ku Klux gown and a signal instrument. The operations of the Klan are executed in the night and are invariably directed against members of the Republican Party. The Klan is inflicting summary vengeance on the colored citizens of these citizens by breaking into their houses at the dead of night, dragging them from their beds, torturing them in the most inhuman manner, and in many instances murdering." Congress passed the Ku Klux Klan Act and it became law on 20th April, 1871.

The Ku Klux Klan was reformed in 1915 by William J. Simmons, a preacher influenced by the book, The Ku Klux Klan (1905) by Thomas Dixon and the film of the book, Birth of a Nation, directed by D.W. Griffith. The National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) became the main opponent of the Ku Klux Klan. To show that the members of the organization would not be intimidated, it held its 1920 annual conference in Atlanta, considered at the time to be one of the most active Ku Klux Klan areas in America.

After the First World War the Ku Klux Klan also became extremely hostile to Jews, Roman Catholics, socialists, communists and anybody they identified as foreigners. In November 1922 Hiram W. Evans became the Klan's Imperial Wizard. Under his leadership the organization grew rapidly and in the 1920s Klansmen were elected to positions of political power. This included state officials in Texas, Oklahoma, Indiana, Oregon and Maine. By 1925 membership reached 4,000,000. Even on the rare occasions they were arrested for serious crimes, Klansmen were unlikely to be convicted by local Southern juries.

Primary Sources

(Source 1) Thomas Nast, Harper's Weekly (24th October 1874)
(Source 1) Thomas Nast, Harper's Weekly (24th October 1874)

 

(Source 2) In 1868 the Ku Klux Klan drew up a series of questions for people who wanted to join its organisation.

Are you now, or have you ever been a member of the Radical Republican Party?

Did you belong to the Federal Army during the late war, and fight against the South during the existence of the same?

Are you opposed to Negro equality, both social and political?

Are you in favor of a white man's government in this country?

(Source 3) The Wilmington Daily Journal (17th June, 1868)

On the night of the 30th March, G. W. Ashburn was killed in a negro house of ill-fame, in the city of Columbus, Georgia. From the differences known to exist between Ashburn and many of his political associates, his violent and overbearing temper, and the remarks made by his relatives and intimate friends the suspicion that he was killed by members of his own party, for political reasons.

(Source 4) The Ku Klux Klan At Work: The Assassination Of G. W. Ashburn, Frank Leslie's Illustrated (1868)
(Source 4) The Ku Klux Klan At Work: The Assassination Of G. W. Ashburn, Frank Leslie's Illustrated (1868)

(Source 5) James L. Alcorn, letter to Elihu Washburne (29th June, 1868)

Can it be possible that the Northern people have made the negro free, but to be returned, the slave of society, to bear in such slavery the vindictive resentments that the satraps of Davis maintain today towards the people of the north? Better a thousand times for the negro that the government should return him to the custody of the original owner, where he would have a master to look after his well being, than that his neck should be placed under the heel of a society, vindictive towards him because he is free.

(Source 6) Pauli Murray wrote about the experiences of her grandparents living in Orange County after the American Civil War in her autobiography, Song in a Weary Throat (1987)

In the early days of their marriage, when my grandparents were struggling to establish a foothold, Grandmother often stayed alone in the farm near Chapel Hill. Grandfather was working in his brickyard in Durham, twelve miles away, until he was able to build the family home there, and their children were often in Durham helping him. It was a time when the Ku Klux Klan in Orange County sought to run coloured farmers off their land, and Grandmother's isolated cabin in the woods was an easy target.

Late at night she would be awakened by the thudding of horses' hooves as night riders, brandishing torches and yelling like banshees, swept into the clearing and rode round and round her cabin, churning the earth outside her door. She never knew when they might set fire to the place, burning her to death inside, and some nights she was so terrified that she would get out of bed in the middle of the night, creep through the woods to the roadway, and trudge the twelve miles to Durham, preferring the dark, lonely but open road to the risk of being trapped at the farm.

(Source 7) Government report on the Ku Klux Klan (1871)

There has existed since 1868, in many counties of the state, an organization known as the Ku Klux Klan, or Invisible Empire of the South, which embraces in its membership a large proportion of the white population of every profession and class. The Klan has a constitution and bylaws, which provides, among other things, that each member shall furnish himself with a pistol, a Ku Klux gown and a signal instrument. The operations of the Klan are executed in the night and are invariably directed against members of the Republican Party. The Klan is inflicting summary vengeance on the colored citizens of these citizens by breaking into their houses at the dead of night, dragging them from their beds, torturing them in the most inhuman manner, and in many instances murdering.

(Source 8) Benjamin Butler wrote about the passing of legislation against the Ku Klux Klan in 1870 in his autobiography, Autobiography and Personal Reminiscences (1892)

There were numerous large bands of organized marauders called the Ku Klux Klan, who were dressed in fantastic uniforms, and who rode at night and inflicted unnumbered and horrible outrages upon the negro so that he could not dare to come to the polls. Indeed, the men of the South seemed to think themselves excused in these outrages because they wanted to insure a white man's government in their States.

I desired that Congress should pass laws, which, with their punishments and modes of execution, would be sufficiently severe under the circumstances to prevent those outrages entirely, or at least to punish them.

A bill was reported by that special committee. By the bill this murdering of negroes of Ku Klux riders at night was to be deemed conspiracy, and punished by fine and imprisonment. But the prisoner would first have to be convicted by a Southern jury, and upon these juries other members of the Ku Klux could serve if their own cases were not on trial. That bill was passed, and the government made great show of enforcing it.

(Source 9) Women's Section of the Ku Klux Klan, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania (c. 1920)
(Source 9) Women's Section of the Ku Klux Klan, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania (c. 1920)

(Source 10) R. A. Patton, writing about the activities of the Ku Klux Klan in Current History (1929)

A lad whipped with branches until his back was ribboned flesh: a Negress beaten and left helpless to contract pneumonia from exposure and dies; a white girl, divorcee beaten into unconsciousness in her home; a naturalized foreigner flogged until his back was pulp because he married an American woman; a Negro lashed until he sold his land to a white man for a fraction of its value.

(Source 11) Adapted from the Kloran, the Ku Klux Klan book of rules (c. 1915)

(1) Is the motive prompting your ambition to be a Klansman serious and unselfish?
(2) Are you a native born, white, gentile American?
(3) Do you esteem the United States of America and its instructions above all other government, civil, political, or ecclesiastical, in the whole world?
(4) Do you believe in clannishness, and will you faithfully practice same towards Klansman?
(5) Do you believe in and will you faithfully strive for the eternal maintenance of white supremacy?

(Source 12) KKK advertisement in the Illinois State Journal (15th August, 1924)
(Source 12) KKK advertisement in the Illinois State Journal (15th August, 1924)


(Source 13) Thomas M. Coffey, The Long Thirst (1975)

The whispering campaign against Al Smith (Democratic Presidential Candidate in 1928) because of his religion began immediately after his nomination. Not only in the South but throughout the country, the rumour spread - and some labeled it as verified truth - that if a Catholic were elected President, the Pope would soon arrive from Rome and move into the White House.... The Ku Klux Klan sent speakers all over the South and into selected Northern areas to point out the danger of putting a Papist into the White House.

(Source 14) Ku Klux Klan initiation ceremony in Georgia (May, 1946)
(Source 14) Ku Klux Klan initiation ceremony in Georgia (May, 1946)


(Source 15) Robert Coughlan, Konklave in Kokomo (1949)

Literally half the town belonged to the Klan when I was a boy. At its peak, which was from 1923 through 1925, the Nathan Hale Den had about five thousand members, out of an able-bodied adult population of ten thousand. With this strength the Klan was able to dominate local politics. It packed the police and fire departments with its own people, with the result that on parade nights the traffic patrolmen disappeared and traffic control was taken over by sheeted figures whose size and shape resembled those of the vanished patrolmen.

(Source 16) Jose Yglesias, union activist describing a strike in 1931, interviewed by Studs Terkel in Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression (1970)

During the strike the KKK would come into the Labour Temple with guns, and break up meetings. Very frequently, they were police in hoods. The picket lines would hold hands, and the KKK would beat them up and cart them off. When the strike was lost, the Tampa paper published a full page, in large type; the names of all members of the strike committee. They were indicted for conspiracy and spent a year in jail. None of them got their jobs back.

Bill Mauldin, United Feature Syndicate (1947)
(Source 17) Bill Mauldin, United Feature Syndicate (1947)

(Source 18) Erskine Caldwell, You Have Seen Their Faces (1937)

Mississippi: The white farmer has not always been the lazy, slipshod, good-for-nothing person that he is frequently described as being. Somewhere in his span of life he became frustrated. He felt defeated. He felt the despair and dejection that comes from defeat. He was made aware of the limitations of life imposed upon those unfortunate enough to be made slaves of sharecropping. Out of his predicament grew desperation, out of desperation grew resentment. His bitterness was a taste his tongue would always know.

In a land that has long been glorified in the supremacy of the white race, he directed his resentment against the black man. His normal instincts became perverted. He became wasteful and careless. He became bestial. He released his pent-up emotions by lynching the black man in order to witness the mental and physical suffering of another human being. He became cruel and inhuman in everyday life as his resentment and bitterness increased. He released his energy from day to day by beating mules and dogs, by whipping and kicking an animal into insensibility or to death. When his own suffering was more than he could stand, he could live only by witnessing the suffering of others.

(Source 19) Grand Dragon, Dr. Samuel Green, in Atlanta, Georgia (24th July, 1948)
(Source 19) Grand Dragon, Dr. Samuel Green, in Atlanta, Georgia (24th July, 1948)

 

(Source 20) Dr. E. P. Pruitt, Grand Dragon of the Federated Klans of Alabama, speech in Georgia (1954)

The Klan don't hate nobody! In fact, the Klan is the good n******'s best friend. If the n****** will devote his energies to becoming a better, more useful n******, rather than the dupe of Northern interests who have caused him to misconstrue his social standing, he will reap the rewards of industry, instead of the disappointments of ambition unobtainable!

Southern whites, occupying that super-position assigned them by the Creator, are justifiably hostile to any race that attempts to drag them down to its own level! Therefore let the n****** be wise in leaving the ballot in the hands of a dominant sympathetic race, since he is far better off as a political eunuch in the house of his friends, than a voter rampant in the halls of his enemies!

Questions for Students

Question 1: Select sources from this unit that explains why the Ku Klux Klan was formed in 1867.

Question 2: Does source 3 provide an accurate account of the death of George Ashburn?

Question 3: Explain how sources 5, 6, 7 and 8, help to explain the meaning of source 1.

Question 4: What do sources 9, 12, 14, 17 and 19 tell us about the Ku Klux Klan?

Question 5: Referring to the sources in this unit, give as many reasons as you can why people in the South were unwilling to speak out against the activities of the KU Klux Klan in the 1920s.

Answer Commentary

A commentary on these questions can be found here.