The Birthday of the Ku Klux Klan ► Throwback Thursday

As the south grapples with removing the names of Confederate traitors from buildings and monuments, it’s a good time to remember the Ku Klux Klan was formed exactly 150 years ago today.

Wait. That’s a not entirely true. It’s more accurate to say the first iteration of the Ku Klux Klan was formed on this date in 1865. There were two others.

Three, if you count what’s been going on in this election cycle.

“I’m so glad we’re living in a post-racial society” is something I say frequently on Facebook and Twitter. I am always being sarcastic because I’ve never thought racism was eradicated. Ten years ago, when I first moved back to the States, I had people come up to me and say the most racist things, thinking we belonged to the same White skin club. And, this was before that Muslim Obama (/sarcasm) smoked out all the current racists.

According to History.com:

The organization of the Ku Klux Klan coincided with the beginning of the second phase of post-Civil War Reconstruction,
put into place by the more radical members of the Republican Party in
Congress. After rejecting President Andrew Johnson’s relatively lenient
Reconstruction policies, in place from 1865 to 1866, Congress passed the
Reconstruction Act over the presidential veto. Under its provisions,
the South was divided into five military districts, and each state was
required to approve the 14th Amendment, which granted “equal protection”
of the Constitution to former slaves and enacted universal male
suffrage.

From 1867 onward, African-American participation in public life in
the South became one of the most radical aspects of Reconstruction, as
blacks won election to southern state governments and even to the U.S.
Congress. For its part, the Ku Klux Klan dedicated itself to an
underground campaign of violence against Republican leaders and voters
(both black and white) in an effort to reverse the policies of Radical
Reconstruction and restore white supremacy in the South. They were
joined in this struggle by similar organizations such as the Knights of
the White Camelia (launched in Louisiana
in 1867) and the White Brotherhood. At least 10 percent of the black
legislators elected during the 1867-1868 constitutional conventions
became 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.

By 1870, the Ku Klux Klan had branches in nearly every southern
state. Even at its height, the Klan did not boast a well-organized
structure or clear leadership. Local Klan members–often wearing masks
and dressed in the organization’s signature long white robes and
hoods–usually carried out their attacks at night, acting on their own
but in support of the common goals of defeating Radical Reconstruction
and restoring white supremacy in the South. Klan activity flourished
particularly in the regions of the South where blacks were a minority or
a small majority of the population, and was relatively limited in
others. Among the most notorious zones of Klan activity was South Carolina, where in January 1871 500 masked men attacked the Union county jail and lynched eight black prisoners.

*

The Ku Klux Klan was eventually broken up by the Federal government, which passed the Enforcement Act of 1871 (aka the Civil Rights Act or the Ku Klux Klan Act). Then it took measures to arrest and convict the terrorists attacking Black folk in the south.

Then came the sequel. From the WikiWackyWoo:

Refounding in 1915

In 1915 the film The Birth of a Nation was released, mythologising and glorifying the first Klan and its endeavors. The second Ku Klux Klan was founded in 1915 by William Joseph Simmons at Stone Mountain, outside Atlanta, with fifteen “charter members”.[86] Its growth was based on a new anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic, prohibitionist
and anti-semitic agenda, which reflected contemporary social tensions,
particularly immigration and industrialization. The new organization and
chapters adopted regalia featured in The Birth of a Nation.

The Birth of a Nation

Director D. W. Griffith‘s The Birth of a Nation glorified the original Klan. His film was based on the book and play The Clansman and the book The Leopard’s Spots, both by Thomas Dixon, Jr.

Much of the modern Klan’s iconography, including the standardized
white costume and the lighted cross, are derived from the film. Its
imagery was based on Dixon’s romanticized concept of old England and
Scotland, as portrayed in the novels and poetry of Sir Walter Scott. The film’s influence was enhanced by a purported endorsement by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson,
a Southerner. A Hollywood press agent claimed that after seeing the
film Wilson said, “It is like writing history with lightning, and my
only regret is that it is all so terribly true.” Historians doubt he
said it.[87]
Wilson felt betrayed by Dixon, who had been a classmate. Wilson’s staff
issued a denial, saying he was entirely unaware of the nature of the
play before it was presented and at no time has expressed his
approbation of it.”[88]

The new Klan was inaugurated in 1915 by William Joseph Simmons on top of Stone Mountain.
It was a small local organization until 1921. Simmons said he had been
inspired by the original Klan’s Prescripts, written in 1867 by
Confederate veteran George Gordon, but they were never adopted by the first Klan.[89]

The third Klan is generally accepted to be that time after World War II, through the Civil Rights Era of the ’60s.

Today there has been a reemergence Ku Klux Klan. The Klan’s former leader came out in support of Donald Trump, whose racist and xenophobic rants have energized the White Power Movement.

Everything old is new again.


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Headly Westerfield
Headly Westerfield
Calling himself “A liberally progressive, sarcastically cynical, iconoclastic polymath,” Headly Westerfield has been a professional writer all his adult life.