A Dictionary of American History

Author: Thomas L. Purvis  | Date: 1995

Ku Klux Klan

Ku Klux Klan The Klan developed from a social club organized at Pulaski, Tenn., in May 1866. Under its first “imperial wizard,” Nathan B. Forrest, southern Democrats rapidly adapted its secrecy, costumes, and ritual to intimidate Republicans from voting and reassert white supremacy. To curb the violence of Klansmen (and imitators like the Knights of the White Camelia, Pale Faces, White Brotherhood, Councils of Safety, etc.) directed at Reconstruction, Congress passed the Ku Klux Klan Act. The Klan contributed to restoring Democratic rule by undermining the morale of freedmen and white Republicans in the South. Acting as the Democratic Party’s military arm, it exhausted northerners with the seemingly hopeless and endless task of suppressing white southerners by armed force until they gave up. The Klan withered away after Redemption.

William J. Simmons, an Atlanta self-promoter and entrepreneur, revived the Klan as of 16 October 1915, appointed himself imperial wizard, and went on to make a fortune selling its members uniforms and miscellaneous memorabilia—including CSA flags and symbols, which the original Klan had never used. Whereas the first Klan was primarily political, Simmons’s group was nonpartisan. Although the first Klan had enlisted all whites, of whatever religion or birthplace, in defense of white supremacy, Simmons allowed in only native-born Protestants and preached a message that was not only racist, but also xenophobic, anti-Semitic, and anti-Catholic. It grew rapidly after 1920, and became a national organization with more members in the North and West than the South. By 1925, perhaps 5,000,000 men (about every sixth adult male) were members, including a large minority of mid-western and western legislators.

Klan membership fell sharply in the late 1920s due to publicity about financial corruption and other scandals among Klan leaders. Having blundered into an ill-timed alliance with the pro-Nazi German Bund in 1940, the Klan again went into eclipse when the US entered World War II. The Klan reappeared during the late 1950s, but attracted few members and was largely confined to the South.


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Chicago: Thomas L. Purvis, "Ku Klux Klan," A Dictionary of American History in A Dictionary of American History (Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell Reference, 1995), Original Sources, accessed July 18, 2024, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=CZGXQN8U9R7NHQR.

MLA: Purvis, Thomas L. "Ku Klux Klan." A Dictionary of American History, in A Dictionary of American History, Cambridge, Mass., Blackwell Reference, 1995, Original Sources. 18 Jul. 2024. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=CZGXQN8U9R7NHQR.

Harvard: Purvis, TL, 'Ku Klux Klan' in A Dictionary of American History. cited in 1995, A Dictionary of American History, Blackwell Reference, Cambridge, Mass.. Original Sources, retrieved 18 July 2024, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=CZGXQN8U9R7NHQR.