The Klan was formed in 1866 as a white supremacist group meant to fight racial integration in the Reconstruction South. Founded by a small band of Confederate veterans in Tennessee, the KKK spread to every southern state by 1868. Throughout its history, the organization has operated as a loose collection of groups bound together by a commitment to vigilante violence and a common language of racist iconography—conical hoods, flowing sheets, and fiery crosses. The founders stated emphatically that their purpose was to found a “hilarious social club,” whose only mandate was to “have fun, make mischief, and play pranks on the public.” Terrified yet? These “pranks” soon evolved into the systemic terrorization and murder of newly freed slaves.
What does Klu Klux Klan even mean?
The Klan’s founders were college-educated men familiar with the Kuklos Adelphon fraternity—known as “Old Kappa Alpha,” the “Circle of Friends.” The now defunct fraternity was founded at the University of North Carolina in 1812 and dissolved sometime during the Civil War. 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 (they spelled it with a k for the sake of uniformity).
Rise of the Ku Klux Klan
At the time of Ulysses S. Grant’s election to the presidency, white supremacists were conducting a reign of terror throughout the South. In outright defiance of the Republican-led federal government, Southern Democrats formed organizations that violently intimidated blacks and Republicans who tried to win political power.
The most prominent of these, the Ku Klux Klan, was formed in Pulaski, Tennessee, in 1865. Originally founded as a social club for former Confederate soldiers, the Klan evolved into a terrorist organization. It would be responsible for thousands of deaths, and would help to weaken the political power of Southern blacks and Republicans.
Racist activity in the South often took the form of riots that targeted blacks and Republicans. In 1866, a quarrel between whites and black ex-soldiers erupted into a full-fledged riot in Memphis, Tennessee. White policemen assisted the mobs in their violent rampage through the black sections of town. By the time the violence ended, 46 people were dead, 70 more were wounded, and numerous churches and schools had been burned. Just two months later, on July 30, a similar outbreak of violence erupted in New Orleans. This time, a white mob attacked the attendees of a black suffrage convention, killing 37 blacks and three whites who allied with them.
In this violent atmosphere, the Ku Klux Klan grew in size and strength. By 1868, the Klan had evolved into a hooded terrorist organization that its members called “The Invisible Empire of the South.” The reorganized Klan’s first leader, or “Grand Wizard,” was Nathan Bedford Forrest, who had been a Confederate general during the Civil War.
The Complete List of American Cities Where the KKK Is Known to Operate