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KKK Part 3: Fraternity of evil
Over the past two weeks we have discussed the gradual development of the early Ku Klux Klan into a spooky boys’ club. This week we will learn how it became a spooky boys’ club for white supremacists.
This wasn’t exactly a slow or gradual transition. That first ride of the Klan through the town sparked a regular activity. As early as 1866, the growing organization based in Pulaski, Tenn., hosted regular night rides through the town. The men concealed their visages behind spooky masks and wore flowing white sheets. During these night rides, their well-intentioned hooliganism became a bizarre extension of law enforcement. They claimed that their rides through the towns at night were to patrol the populace for illegal activities.
As we have seen numerous times throughout history, lay groups gathered with the intention of maintaining law and order focused inordinately on people of color. The Klan soon began exclusively visiting the homes of freed slaves, admonishing them to be well behaved and making threats of what might happen if they stepped a toe out of line. These weren’t empty threats, either. The Equal Justice Initiative, an Alabama-based nonprofit dedicated to combating racial inequality, recently produced a survey of nearly 2,000 lynchings of Black men, women and children from 1865 to 1876. The overall death toll of lynchings from 1865 to 1950 is just shy of 6,500.
What motivated the Ku Klux Klan’s escalation of lynching tactics during southern reconstruction? Well, racism aside, it’s elections. You see, newly freed Black citizens were excited to become a part of modern society, and many ran for office – successfully, I might add. In fact, until Woodrow Wilson’s presidency in 1913, representation of Black people in government was much better than one might expect. For example, per 1915’s “The Crisis,” it is observed that part of William Howard Taft’s political downfall was that he only appointed 31 Black officeholders, while voters desired much more equity in representation. Rates of violence against Black people by white supremacists increased a great deal as a result of this. Or, to phrase it another away, racist people resorted to violence rather than accepting the outcome of a vote.
To quote history.com’s article on “Ku Klux Klan Violence in the South,” “At least 10 percent of the Black legislators elected during the 1867-1868 constitutional conventions became victims of violence during reconstruction, including seven who were killed. White Republicans (derided as ‘carpetbaggers’ and ‘scalawags’) and Black institutions such as schools and churches – symbols of Black autonomy – were also targets for Klan attacks.”
As the Klan’s numbers grew, so did its potential for violence against Black people. Though the organization was not necessarily well planned out or structured, there seemed to be no limit to its ability to recruit new members. Chapters sprung up all across the south, and the groups of people attempting to restore white supremacy to the South became more comfortable showing their ugly sides out in public – in 1871 500 masked men attacked a South Carolina jail where they lynched eight Black prisoners. Public figures who privately supported these actions typically claimed that these groups of domestic terrorists were limited to poor southern white people. As we’ve seen in much of the uglier side of Southern history, there are plenty of Northern rich families quietly bankrolling these efforts.
As these acts became more notorious and violent, the federal government took action. In 1871, Ulysses S. Grant helped to pass anti-Klan laws. These laws granted the federal government the authority to exercise its authority to punish these lynchings and attacks rather than relying on the willingness of certain localities or state organizations to punish klansmen. State militias did a fair amount of work putting the Klan down, as well – though nine South Carolina counties actually did have to be put under martial law in order to circumvent these sheetclad terrorists. By 1877 the first wave of the Klan was generally suppressed for a while.
For those of you who are enjoying this series, worry not! With the fall of the first wave of the Ku Klux Klan comes quite a bit more history. Coming up next, we enter the rise of the Invisible Empire, explore the weird cultural shifts that lead to millions more klansmen and also discuss the Ku Klux Klan as a mid-level marketing scheme.