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By Chris Bouton

Donald Trump’s attacks on immigrants, Mexicans, and other minority groups and the hiring of Steve Bannon, formerly the CEO of Breitbart, as campaign chairman and then as a senior advisor, have emboldened white nationalist groups like the Ku Klux Klan in the United States. These disgraceful organizations promote a vision of America solely for white Americans and espouse racist arguments about the genetic superiority of whites over African-Americans and other non-whites. David Duke, the former grand wizard of the KKK and a former candidate for governor of Louisiana, reentered the political consciousness by boldly endorsing Trump and his policies. He even ran for the US Senate in Louisiana. White supremacy has a long and troubling history in the United States. So for today’s post, I wanted to offer a brief look back at the history of the first Ku Klux Klan.

A group of former Confederate officers founded the Ku Klux Klan in Pulaski, Tennessee sometime between December 1865 and the summer of 1866. Originally founded as a social club, Klan members elected Nathan Bedford Forest, a former Confederate general best known for massacring African American soldiers at Fort Pillow in Tennessee in 1864, as the organization’s first Grand Wizard. By 1868, Klan chapters had sprouted up across the South and began engaging in systematic violence against African-Americans and white Republicans. The Klan, as historian Eric Foner has explained, was part of a “wave of counterrevolutionary terror that swept across large parts of the South.” The Klan did not have a strong centralized organization or leadership, rather it consisted of small chapters spread out across Southern states that acted independently of one another. They were, however, unified in their goals of restoring white supremacy in the South and attacking the rights of newly freed African-Americans. As Foner explains, “In effect, the Klan was a military force serving the interests of the Democratic party, the planter class, and all those who desired the restoration of white supremacy.”[1]

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A 1874 political cartoon from Harper’s Weekly depicting the Klan and efforts to restore white supremacy in the South.

Following the Civil War and emancipation, newly enfranchised African-Americans engaged in political organizing and electing their brethren to public office. A decade earlier they had been slaves without political rights. For many white Southerners, their world had truly been turned upside down. In order to roll back the advancements of African-Americans and restore white supremacy, the Klan and other organizations, like the White Brotherhood and Knights of the White Camelia, unleashed campaigns of terror against African-Americans and white Republicans across the South. They assassinated African-American political leaders, like Jack Dupree of Mississippi. The men who murdered Dupree slit his throat and disemboweled him in the presence of his wife who had recently had twins. Klansmen and their allies attacked gatherings of Republicans as well. In October 1870, they attacked a Republican campaign rally in Greene County, Alabama killing four African-Americans and wounding fifty-four others.[2] White southerners viciously targeted African-Americans who attempted to vote, participate in Republican party politics, or had become economically prosperous. In other words, they attacked anyone, white or black, who could be a threat to white rule in the South.

This reign of domestic terror prompted the Federal government, led by President Ulysses S. Grant, to stamp out the Klan for good. The Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 extended Federal authority over criminal activities designed to prevent African-Americans from voting. Attorney general Amos Akerman and solicitor general Benjamin Bristow took quick and decisive action, arresting hundreds of Klansmen across the South. Grant even authorized Federal troops to occupy parts of South Carolina to restore order. While the arrests and prosecutions only numbered in the hundreds, the campaign effectively destroyed the Klan in the South and restored the rights of African-Americans to vote.

The Klan Act did not put an end to violence or white supremacy, but it did bring the first Ku Klux Klan to an end. In later posts, we’ll explore the resurgence of the Klan in the 20th century.

Sources

Maria Carter Testimony Before Congress regarding the Klan: http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/6225/

Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution. New York: Perennial Classics, 2002.

Richardson, Heather Cox. West from Appomattox: The Reconstruction of America After the Civil War. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007.

Chris Bouton @ChrisHBouton is a historian of American slavery, specifically slave violence against whites in the Antebellum South.

[1] Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution (New York: Perennial Classics, 2002), 425.

[2] Foner, Reconstruction, 427.

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