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Bronze-level article

Ku Klux Klan

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[Notices approaching KKK lynch mob in rear-view mirror] Holy crap! Do you see what I see?! ...We're being chased by ghosts!
—Peter Griffin, Family Guy[1]

The Ku Klux Klan (abbreviated "KKK"[note 1]) is an American racist organization, known for their terrorist activities including lynching (at least historically), their sinister robes and pointy hoods (to hide identity),[note 2] and other trademarks such as burning crosses.

Oh, and guess who their official paper The Crusader endorsed for president in 2016.[2]


The first Klan was started after the American Civil War, to frighten any African-Americans in The South who decided to exercise their newly-won rights, as well as Southern "scalawags" and Northern "carpetbaggers" who were seen as exploiting the Civil War victory. A number of similar movements sprang up in the South during this era, adopting Klan tactics and sometimes insignia. Even the Jesse James gang, bandits who regarded themselves as Confederate loyalist guerrillas, wore Klan robes and hoods during a train robbery in 1873.

In Margaret Mitchell's epic Civil War novel Gone With the Wind, some of the story's heroes participate in the Ku Klux Klan after the war, even riding out in Klan robes to take retaliation on a Yankee shantytown. In the movie adaptation, all mention of the Klan was omitted and the raid was made in plain clothes.

During the 1870s, the Klan and its allies spearheaded the insurrection that helped to end Reconstruction. After Reconstruction ended, so did the original Ku Klux Klan. One pernicious rumour claims the Klan became the National Rifle Association (implied in the Michael Moore piece Bowling For Columbine) but this is not only untrue but the exact opposite of the truth: the NRA was set up by Unionists, and its eighth president was Ulysses S. Grant, probably the greatest enemy the Klan ever had: his successor was General Philip Sheridan, also no friend of the Klan.

Revivals of the KKK[edit]

From the end of Reconstruction until the 1920s, the KKK was mostly dormant. Older members would occasionally don the costume in an effort to get together a lynch mob, but it did not act as an organized force.

However, around 1915 some leaders, at least partly inspired by the silent film The Birth of a NationWikipedia's W.svg, came together and launched the second Klan. They expanded their ambitions and became a force across the United States (In fact, many of the most important chapters were in the Midwest rather than the South). In many states, one could not be elected to the state house or the governor's mansion without at least the tacit endorsement of the KKK. On top of this, they also expanded the targets of their hate. Rather than focusing on African-Americans, as they had in the past, they also targeted organized labor, Catholics, immigrants, Jews and feminists much as did European fascists.

The revived Klan differed from the original in other ways as well. The old Klan was genuinely clandestine; the revived Klan was a public entity parading in the streets, one that bigots could join by mail-order. The old Klan was Southern and Democratic; the revived Klan was Midwestern and Republican, and managed to politically dominate several states, most notably Indiana in the early 1920s. After the 1929 stock market crash, being nailed for blatant tax evasion, and several public scandals involving the KKK, including one in which a Grand Dragon was convicted of rape and murder,[3] membership imploded and the second Klan was near defunct by 1930. It finally disbanded in 1944, never having gotten the opportunity to commit large-scale genocide as did other fascists.

The third Klan started up in the 1950s in response to the civil rights movement. This iteration of the Klan, while nowhere near as large as the 1920s version, carried out many lynchings and other acts in opposition to desegregation and voting rights in the South. This version also became fodder for the FBI's COINTELPRO program and for the Superman radio show, when moles within the organization began to submit private information to the FBI (as well as leaking the most ridiculous information to the media (think of it as the grand-father to websites such as Fundies Say the Darndest Things)). By the late 1960s the Klan was again on life support and probably would have disappeared entirely if not for one David Duke, who together with a few other Klan leaders tried reviving the Klan during the 1970s by shedding the ghost costumes and putting on suits and ties.

More recently[edit]

The KKK imagines this is meaningful (not to be confused with Burning ManWikipedia's W.svg)

The era of the organized Klan is over. There are many smaller groups who now claim to be the "true" KKK, but few have any power. Occasionally, members of these smaller groups will engage in either hate-spewing or even violence, but this is nothing like the hold that the KKK held on the South in the late 1800s or the whole nation in the early 1900s.

The small groups today sometimes use the term "fifth era Klan," which is dubious at best. This is in reference to the first era (Reconstruction), second era (1920s), and third era (1950s-60s), but whether there is an actual "fourth" and "fifth" era (as distinct from merely the pathetic remains of the third era limping along on life support) is questionable. Usually their claim is the period when David Duke tried resuscitating the Klan during the 1970s is the "fourth era," and the "fifth era" started in the early 1980s when the Klan adopted Khristian Identity and became part of the extreme right aligned with neo-Nazi groups like the Aryan Nations. To give some idea: Klan membership in 1926 at the peak of the second era stood at about 6,000,000. In 1980 ("fourth era"), it stood at about 5,000. Today it is about 3,000.

The modern Klan has been trying to distance itself from its lynching past in order to get a shot at political power, claiming that they "are not about hate" but rather about personal racial pride. The argument goes something like this: "We don't hate other groups, we just love our own group... Black people get to have black pride, so why don't we get to have white pride?" Instead of endorsing assault and/or murder of minorities, they have washed their hands of the supremacists who profess belief in those crimes (at least out loud). They now identify as merely racial and cultural separatists. Merely.

Some Klan groups are now claiming a "sixth era" which presumably has something to do with the internet and the rise of the alt-right. The Klan and other hate groups have certainly been getting a lot of media attention during and after the 2016 U.S. presidential election, including articles humouring their talking points such as their claims not to be white supremacists.[4]

Public officials and the Klan[edit]

There has been one Klan member on the Supreme Court. Justice Hugo Black was both a member and appointed during the heyday of the Second Klan. However, he later came to regret his association and became a consistent voice for civil rights.

Also, one former Klan member has been elected to the Senate, Democrat Robert Byrd of West Virginia. Even more so than Black, however, Byrd publicly and repeatedly repented, sponsored a great deal of the US's civil rights legislation, and even publicly endorsed a black man for United States President. He was also the longest serving Senator ever, beating Ted Kennedy.

A well-known member is David Duke, who won a seat on the Louisiana state legislature back in 1989, even though the Republican Party's biggest names threw their support to his opponent[5] (which doesn't really enhance Louisiana's reputation). Donald Trump famously failed to denounce him due to a faulty earpiece.

The Klan and pop culture[edit]

Most often in pop culture, the Klan is depicted as generic villains, of the sort that few people could really identify with. However, there are several appearances of the Klan in pop culture that are more interesting.

The serious[edit]

  • The KKK feature as a murderous secret society in Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle's tale of "The Five Orange Pips" (1891). The "pips" (seeds) were sent as a warning to the recipient, often of sentence of death. The mystery was solved by Sherlock Holmes.[note 3]This portrayal is interesting not only because it was so early, but also because the Klan - while portrayed negatively - appears as a dangerous adversary[note 4] that murders with impunity and cannot even be stopped entirely by the likes of Sherlock Holmes[note 5]
  • In The Birth of a Nation (1915) by D. W. Griffith, a young white woman was kidnapped by freed slaves in the South under Reconstruction, and rescued by the Knights of the KKK. This was intended as an allegory of what happened to the South under Reconstruction. The film was a smash success, in part because of the message but also because it was a revolution in cinematography. President Woodrow Wilson publicly praised the film as an important message to the generations. However, this praise is often overemphasized, as it is commonly accepted among historians that Wilson was tricked, and his lesser-known dislike for the KKK was often kept quiet and under wraps, such as a letter he wrote to Senator Morris Sheppard of Texas, stating that "no more obnoxious or harmful organization has ever shown itself in our affairs".[6] The movie is considered to have been a large part of the impetus for reforming the Klan in the 1920s.
  • In 1937, when the Klan was still popular and powerful in a few areas of the United States, Warner Brothers made Black Legion starring Humphrey Bogart. The film is a thinly disguised cautionary tale of the Klan and its recruiting methods. It was one of the few anti-bigotry movies[note 6] to emerge during the height of the studio era. Jack Warner had the studio alter as many references to the Klan as possible[note 7] because the studio's lawyers were concerned that the Klan might sue for defamation.
  • The Ku Klux Klan also appeared positively (or at least neutrally) in Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell's epic novel about the Civil War and Reconstruction, published in 1936. After Scarlett O'Hara is attacked by shantytown-dwellers, some of the boys ride out in Klan robes and hoods to take revenge and end up fighting Union soldiers instead. The 1939 film adaptation whitewashed over the Klan reference, including the same scene but minus the white robes.
  • In the 1950s, the makers of the Superman radio serials were approached by a man who had infiltrated the KKK. He asked them to create a long running series where Superman fought the KKK, and he offered up all of the secrets of the Klan for use by the writers. The writers, tired of writing about Nazis and Communists, took him up on it. Secret Klan members were horrified to hear their kids talking about beating up the Klan. Others were just horrified to hear people snickering over the stupid code-words used within the Klan.[note 8] Some consider this the final blow that destroyed the Second Klan.
  • The FBI Story (1959), whose script was vetted personally by J. Edgar Hoover, also had a sequence about investigations into Klan activities.
  • Mississippi Burning (1988) depicts the FBI's investigation into the Klan killings of three civil rights workers in 1964 Mississippi.

The humorous[edit]

  • In Blazing Saddles (1974), Sheriff Bart and the Waco Kid encounter two Klan members. "Lookee what I got here," the Kid says. Bart then says "Where the white women at?" The Klan members then follow Bart and the Kid behind a boulder where the two men beat them up and steal their Klan robes.[7]
  • The Ramones sang The KKK Took My Baby Away on their 1981 album Pleasant Dreams.
  • In Smokey and the Bandit Part 3 (1983), a group of Klansmen in a pickup truck harass a black man driving down the highway. They are eventually tarred and feathered.
  • In Forrest Gump (1994), Gump tells that his namesake ancestor[8] helped create the 19th century Klan.
  • In South Park (Episode Chef Goes Nanners, 2000), Uncle Jimbo and his pal Ned attend a KKK meeting, to convince them to vote for the other side of a debate so that their side will win. The Klansman go on to play Who Has the Silliest Thing Under Their Robes.
  • In O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) there is a segment involving lots of sheet wearers.
  • In Harold and Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay (2008), the Klan is depicted as a group of drunken rednecks. One of them even lights himself on fire.
  • In Django Unchained (2013) there is a section involving a proto-KKK. They are seen arguing over the effectiveness and practicality of wearing white hoods, in this case, 30 white bags with eye-holes cut in them, made by one of the members' wives. The member in question storms off due to the criticism leveled at the result of his wife's hard work.
  • Stephen Colbert aired the animated short Laser Klan; based off a real incident of Klan members who tried to sell a portable x-ray weapon to Jewish groups, in order to kill Muslims. [9]

KKK and religion[edit]

The early KKK, up until around the 1930s, adhered to a nationalist brand of Protestantism,[10] which led them to target Jews and Catholics. During the Depression-era, however, Christian Identity, a fringe sect derived from British Israelism that uses Biblical quotes to justify white supremacy, began to be imported into the US. The Klan has been heavily entangled with Christian Identity since this period, especially since the 1970s and '80s, and has put more emphasis on anti-Semitism due to Identity's obsession with a supposed race war and view of the Jews as a force conspiring to wipe out and/or enslave the white race.[11] The vast majority of mainstream Christian groups regard the KKK as a kult.

See also[edit]

External links[edit]


  1. Not to be konfused with the German turbine manufacturer (among other thingsWikipedia's W.svg – except possibly Kinder, Küche, Kirche).
  2. And possibly to fit the shapes of their heads.
  3. No shit!
  4. rather than incompetent fools
  5. Doyle in general held remarkably progressive views on race for his time. In another Sherlock Holmes story. "The Yellow Face", a mixed race relationship that lies at the heart of the case is portrayed with nothing but sympathy
  6. Nearly all of which came from Warner Bros.
  7. i.e., the white robes of the Klan became the black robes of the legion
  8. For example, the secret book of rituals was called a Kloran. Seriously.