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Ku Klux Klan

Origins And Initial Growth

Ex-Confederate soldiers established the Ku Klux Klan in Pulaski, Tennessee, in 1866. They developed the first two words of the group's name from the Greek word kuklos, meaning "group or band," and took the third as a variant of the word clan. Starting as a largely recreational group, the Klan soon turned to intimidating newly freed African Americans. Riding at night, the Klan terrorized and sometimes murdered those it opposed. Members adopted a hooded white costume—a guise intended to represent the ghosts of the Confederate dead—to avoid identification and to frighten victims during nighttime raids.

The Klan fed off the post-Civil War resentments of white southerners—resentment that centered on the Reconstruction programs imposed on the South by a Republican Congress. Under Reconstruction, the North sought to restructure southern society on the basis of racial equality. Under this new regime, leading southern whites were disfranchised, while inexperienced African Americans, carpetbaggers (northerners who had migrated to the South following the war), and scalawags (southerners who cooperated with the North) occupied major political offices.

Shortly after the KKK's formation, Nathan Bedford Forrest, a former slave trader and Confederate general, assumed control of the organization and turned it into a militaristic, hierarchical entity. In 1868, Forrest formally disbanded the group after he became appalled by its growing violence. However, the KKK continued to grow, and its atrocities worsened. Drawing the core of its membership from ex-Confederate soldiers, the KKK may have numbered several hundred thousand at its height during Reconstruction.

In 1871, the federal government took a series of steps to counter the KKK and its violence. Congress organized a joint select committee made up of seven senators and 14 representatives to look into the Klan and its activities. It then passed the CIVIL RIGHTS ACT of 1871, frequently referred to as the KU KLUX KLAN ACT, which made night-riding a crime and empowered the president to order the use of federal troops to put down conspirators by force. The law also provided criminal and civil penalties for people convicted of private conspiracies—such as those perpetrated by the KKK—intended to deny others their civil rights.

Hugo L. Black and the KKK

Hugo L. Black is remembered as a distinguished U.S. Supreme Court justice, a progressive U.S. Senator, and an able trial attorney. Black also was a member of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) in the 1920s. Public disclosure of this fact came shortly after his appointment to the Supreme Court was confirmed by the Senate in 1937. The resulting public uproar would probably have doomed his Court appointment if the disclosure had come just a few weeks earlier.

In 1923 Black was a trial attorney in Birmingham, Alabama, which at the time was controlled by members of the Klan. After rebuffing membership several times, he joined the KKK on September 23, 1923. Black later claimed to have left the group after several years, but no clear evidence documented his departure. In 1937 there were allegations he had signed an undated letter resigning from the Klan, which was to have been used to establish a false resignation date if public scandal occurred.

In 1937 Black made a radio address to the nation, in which he admitted his Klan membership but claimed he had resigned and had not had any connection with the group for many years. He also stated he harbored no prejudice against anyone because of their race, religion, or ethnicity.

During his Court career, Black was reluctant to discuss his KKK membership and offered various reasons for why he had joined. To some people he admitted it was a mistake, whereas to others he said the KKK was just another fraternal organization, like the Masons or Elks. It is clear, however, that as an ambitious politician, Black had sought Klan support for his political campaigns. In the 1920s KKK support had been critical to a Democratic politician in Alabama.

Despite his later denial of holding any prejudices, Black was an active member of the KKK for several years. He participated in Klan events throughout Alabama, wearing the organization's characteristic white robes and hood, and initiated new Klan members into the Invisible Empire, reading the Klan oath, which pledged the members to "most zealously and valiantly shield and preserve by any and all justifiable means … white supremacy."


Black, Hugo Lafayette.

Also in 1871, President ULYSSES S. GRANT relocated troops from the Indian wars on the western plains to South Carolina, in order to quell Klan violence. In October and November of that year, the federal Circuit Court for the District of South Carolina held a series of trials of KKK members suspected of having engaged in criminal conspiracies, but the trials resulted in few convictions.

The Klan declined in influence as the 1870s wore on. Arrests, combined with the return of southern whites to political dominance in the South, diminished its activity and influence.

Additional topics

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