Existing nodes address the origins and beliefs of the Ku Klux Klan. That post-American Civil War organization, however, was defunct by 1872, as members retired, or faced legal repercussions for their crimes. Misguided nostalgia and a clever marketing scheme brought back “America’s recurrent nightmare”(Cook) in the 1920s, when it attained a membership of more than three million, influenced elections, and paraded openly before cheering crowds in many American—and a few Canadian—cities.
White southerners in the early twentieth century waxed nostalgically about the antebellum South and the Confederacy, an inclination which would reach its apotheosis in Margaret Mitchell‘s Gone With the Wind. An earlier novel, Thomas Dixon’s The Clansmen (1905), specifically portrayed the Klan as romantic white knights out to protect southern womanhood. In 1915, D. W. Griffith’s used the novel as the basis for his groundbreaking film, The Birth of a Nation. While the film sparked controversy, it proved quite popular. This romance for things that never were, concerns about swelling immigration, and the World War I–inspired wave of exaggerated patriotism combined to make the Klan seem appealing. Enter William J. Simmons, an ex-minister, who saw the opportunity to franchise the old organization. While he undoubtedly shared the beliefs of the original Klan, it is fairly clear that he intended to turn a healthy profit from the sale of memberships and official regalia. These mixed motives were embraced by the Klan’s most tireless promoters during this era, Elizabeth Tyler and Edward Y. Clarke.
The first meeting of the new Klan took place in 1915 on Stone Mountain, Georgia, but the organization quickly spread, and, unlike its Reconstruction predecessor, included at least as many urban as rural members. While its hatred for Afro-Americans remained, the Klan as frequently targeted Jews, Roman Catholics, and immigrants. Wherever they went, the organization’s promoters played up antagonism towards whatever group young white Nativist-types feared.
In some areas, the popularity of the Klan made them something other than an “Invisible Empire,” and members paraded openly in their traditional garb. They also influenced elections. Each Klansmen was encouraged to recruit at least 10 people to vote for a candidate who was a member or known to be sympathetic towards their beliefs. This strategy worked in many cases, but the Klan also faced resistance in some communities.
The Klan’s power has waned since the 1920s. They became visible again during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. In the 1970s and 1980s they targeted Asian immigrants, including the Vietnamese boat people. But dissent and fragmentation has marked their history in recent decades. They have not disappeared, but their beliefs have never received the hearing they had in their heyday.
Like all organizations, various beliefs and suburban myths have clustered their history and origins. Historical sources insist that the unusual name derives from Kuklos, the Greek word for “circle” or “band” and clan, meaning “tribe.”
Fred J. Cook and Jane Steltenpohl. The Ku Klux Klan: America’s Recurring Nightmare
. Julian Messner Press: 1989.
"Ku Klux Klan." The Columbia Encyclopedia
, Sixth Ed. 2001
"Ku Klux Klan." Reader’s Companion to American History
"People and Events: the Rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s." The American Experience