Why did the KKK form?
December 16, 2012 4:53 PM   Subscribe

A question about why the KKK formed in the first place.

My mom just told me a little story about how the KKK started. She said that after the Civil War, carpetbaggers were going down into the south and "riling up" the black people, telling them that they (the black people) had a right to the whites' land and property and women. Thus, some of the black men started raping the white women and robbing the whites, and the KKK formed to protect their homes and women, and later grew into a hate group. (I can only assume she refers to the first incarnation of the Klan as she refers to the Civil War.)

Wikipedia doesn't seem to go into much about why the group initially formed, and searching the internet seems to indicate that the people who formed the first KKK were simply angry about losing their slaves.

Is there any truth to the fact that the KKK might have started to protect others from crime, or was it just fear of crime from newly-freed slaves? Is this a common misconception? (Please keep it simple, I don't have a scholarly-level background in race issues.)
posted by IndigoRain to Society & Culture (16 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
The story you describe sounds like something out The Birth of a Nation, which I don't think counts for a whole lot in terms of a documentary.

History of the Ku Klux Klan via the ADL is a good look at the origins of the Klan and the two phases of it (Reconstruction-era and the revival later on). The Southern Poverty Law Center has a good rundown too.
posted by jquinby at 5:03 PM on December 16, 2012 [7 favorites]

From Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape (Brownmiller, 1975), a meticulously researched book about the history of rape, based largely on primary sources:
...in Tennessee, a secret, organized force of terror haphazardly came into being and rapidly spread from state to state: the Ku Klux Klan, dedicated in the name of chivalry and patriotism to stopping the Radical Reconstruction movement. The ideology of the Klan as regards rape was typically two-faced. Blood oaths, mumbo jumbo and sworn compacts to "protect" Southern womanhood from the black menace, as sympathetically dramatized by D.W. Griffith in The Birth of a Nation, were predicated on the false assumption, no doubt spread by the Klan itself, that rape of white women by black men was unheard of before the Civil War, thanks to the law and order maintained by the institution of slavery. The holy mission of the Klan was ostensibly to step into the law-and-order gap created by Reconstruction. Actually, the true political mission of the Klan had little to do with white women, although it was not the first and hardly the last time that "protection" of women has been used to hide a male group's real purpose. The Klan's nightriding was aimed at frightening off newly enfranchised black male voters, who were naturally drawn to Radical Republicans, the party of Reconstruction. Raping black women was one method of intimidation, along with unsigned threats, spooky costumes, whipping, burning and outright murder. (p. 136)
posted by quiet coyote at 5:08 PM on December 16, 2012 [12 favorites]

History.com also has a nice overview.

As far as I know, the KKK started out with one stated purpose (a bit like, I don't know, a Moose club for white Southern men) and very quickly transformed into something entirely different (like Al Qaeda.) Part of me wonders if we would have had a KKK at all like the one we do have, if Reconstruction had been handled more diplomatically (that is, we'd still have white supremacists, but it's kind of unlikely it'd be in the form of the KKK.)
posted by SMPA at 5:09 PM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Was coming here to also suggest the Southern Poverty Law Center's rundown. They actually won a fairly large lawsuit against the Klan and have followed the group for a long time. This essay over on Klanwatch has more of the origin story of the Klan.
In the summer of 1866, six young ex-Confederate officers organized a social club. Drawing on their college Greek, they adopted the term for circle, "kuklos." They added the alliterative word "klan," and the "Ku Klux Klan" was born. Their nightly rides, in which members disguised themselves in masks and flowing robes, soon became a political successor to the prewar slave patrols in controlling newly freed blacks. Particularly across the upper South, Klansmen sought to overturn the new Republican state governments, drive black men out of politics, control black labor, and restore black subordination. Led by elites and drawing on a cross-section of white male society, the Klan's assaults and murders numbered in the thousands. Similar organizations such as the Knights of the White Camelia in Louisiana copied the Klan.
The shred of truth is that they formed to keep black people from "doing stuff" but what they wanted to keep black people from doing was basically acting like American citizens and voting and living and working where they wanted to, not raping and pillaging white people's stuff. It's entirely possible that people were reframing the idea of "crime" as black people doing things that the Klan and other racists didn't want them to do. If you became familiar with the Klan around the 20s, you might be more familiar with them as an anti-Semitic or anti-Catholic group [the local group that used to be in my town in Massachusetts was more like this] but they started out as a pretty straightforward anti-black group.
posted by jessamyn at 5:12 PM on December 16, 2012 [15 favorites]

OK, I don't want to cast aspersions on your mom, but no. That's a heavily racist and frankly erroneous understanding of the political and social situation in the South after the Civil War. For one thing, the hysteria over black men raping white women was mostly hysteria. It's not something that was happening in waves all over the place, or whatever people of the time wanted to believe. Also the whole "carpetbaggers riled up the blacks" thing just stinks to high heaven.

From Wikipedia, it appears that the Klan and similar groups were vigilante groups during Reconstruction. Now, I dunno, maybe there are some situations where vigilanteism is a good thing, and not suspect at all, but given the racially and politically fraught environment of Reconstruction, I sort of doubt that the Klan were just a bunch of well-meaning people trying to start a neighborhood watch or whatever your mom said. Also, the next sentence in the Wikipedia article states that the first Klan(s) targeted freed slaves, which to me implies something not entirely wholesome.

Also, gee, this sure sounds a lot like the racist domestic terrorist group the Klan "evolved" into, so I don't really see the distinction between a vigilante group that "merely" targeted black people and a terrorist group attempting to enforce white supremacy through horrific crimes that shocked others into complying. It sounds like kind of the same thing.
posted by Sara C. at 5:12 PM on December 16, 2012 [16 favorites]

Sara, I don't at all take it personally. She's older and becoming more confused over the years and is much more likely to parrot something she hears as fact. That's why I looked around and, not finding a suitable answer, asked here.

Thank you everyone!
posted by IndigoRain at 5:24 PM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have no sources to back it up, but Sara C.'s explanation sounds right to my understanding of it.

There are also three different incarnations of the group that had different goals and agendas. Mostly the same, but as Jessamyn mentions, the middle incarnation of it was particularly virulent against anyone who wasn't them. My grandfather tells a story of riding around through Indiana with his parents and getting stopped at checkpoints and having to lie about being catholic.
posted by gjc at 5:24 PM on December 16, 2012

The original incarnation of the Klan was crushed by Grant during his presidency.

The Klan as we know it today began in 1915, inspired by the movie "Birth of a Nation".
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 5:29 PM on December 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

In fairness to IndigoRain's mom, that version of Klan history is how an older generation of Southerners heard the story and may legitimately be the only version she knows. My grandparents and similar elders told me a similar tale as a young Ghostride in the rural South and let's just say I had some fun illusion shattering in history class.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 6:11 PM on December 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

The story IndigoRain's mum told is very similar to the KKK origin story told in Gone With the Wind, in which Ashley Wilkes is a founder of the local org.
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:18 PM on December 16, 2012 [5 favorites]

That version of events is actually a pretty good summary of the events, from Scarlett O'Hara's perspective and circle of friends, in the novel "Gone with the Wind." As the book has it, the carpetbaggers were the northern Republicans who moved south to do business (and their crime, make money) in the Reconstruction, and they were also taking political power as the southerners, mostly Democrats, were required to sign pledges of loyalty before they could resume franchise on the local elections. The freed slaves (again, the book's characters' perspective) were incapable of managing themselves, having been totally dependent on their owners/masters for all things before, and despite this were being elevated to office by Yankee do-gooders in some cases, despite the obvious-to-any-southerner inability to perform the duties thereof, or anything approaching.

In the book, the Klan formed among these southern Democrats, the upstanding members of society who were exacting justice as it had been prior to the war, rather than permitting the justice of the courts which had swung in favor of the blacks over southern whites, as they saw it.

Anyway, it's possible your mother read the book, or got her history from there. It's a great read, by the way. I still haven't seen the movie.

posted by Sunburnt at 6:19 PM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

This might be more information than you asked for, but it definitely addresses your question. From Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner:
As institutions go, the Ku Klux Klan has had a markedly up-and-down history. It was founded in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War by six former Confederate soldiers in Pulaski, Tennessee. The six young men, four of whom were budding lawyers, saw themselves as merely a circle of like-minded friends. Thus the name they chose, "kuklux," a slight mangling of kuklos, the Greek word for "circle." In the beginning, their activities were said to be harmless midnight pranks--for instance, riding horses through the countryside while draped in white sheets and pillowcase hoods. But soon the Klan evolved into a multistate terrorist organization designed to frighten and kill emancipated slaves. Among its regional leaders were five Confederate generals; its staunchest supporters were the plantation owners for whom Reconstruction posed an economic and political nightmare. In 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant spelled out the true aims of the Ku Klux Klan: "By force and terror, to prevent all political action not in accord with the views of the members, to deprive colored citizens of the right to bear arms and of the right of a free ballot, to suppress the schools in which colored children were taught, and to reduce the colored people to a condition closely allied to that of slavery."

The early Klan did its work through pamphleteering, lynching, shooting, burning, castrating, pistol-whipping, and a thousand forms of intimidation. They targeted former slaves and any whites who supported the blacks' rights to vote, acquire land, or gain an education. But within barely a decade, the Klan had been extinguished, largely by legal and military interventions out of Washington, D.C.

If the Klan itself was defeated, however, its aims had largely been achieved through the establishment of Jim Crow laws. Congress, which during Reconstruction had been quick to enact measures of legal, social, and economic freedom for blacks, just as quickly began to roll them back. The federal government agreed to withdraw its occupation troops from the South, allowing the restoration of white rule. In Plessy v. Ferguson, the U.S. Supreme Court gave the go-ahead to full-scale racial segregation.

The Ku Klux Klan lay largely dormant until 1915, when D. W. Griffith's film The Birth of a Nation (originally titled The Clansman) helped spark its rebirth. Griffith presented the Klan as crusaders for white civilization itself, and as one of the noblest forces in American history. The film quoted a line from A History of the American People, written by a renowned historian: "At last there had sprung into existence a great Ku Klux Klan, a veritable empire of the South, to protect the Southern country." The historian in question was U.S. president Woodrow Wilson, onetime scholar and president of Princeton University.

By the 1920s, a revived Klan claimed eight million members. This time around, the Klan was not confined to the South but ranged throughout the country; this time, it concerned itself not only with blacks but also with Catholics, Jews, communists, unionists, immigrants, agitators, and other disrupters of the status quo. In 1933, with Hitler ascendant in Germany, Will Rogers was the first to draw a line between the new Klan and the new threat in Europe: "Papers all state Hitler is trying to copy Mussolini," he wrote. "Looks to me like it's the Ku Klux that he is copying."
posted by aniola at 7:40 PM on December 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

You might be interested in the story of the Bald Knobbers, a group started in SW Missouri to combat outlaws and general lawlessness in the area that soon went bad in several different ways. It is definitely distinct from the KKK (members were supporters of the North, for starters, though there was an anti-Bald Knobbers group consisting of southern supporters) but was active in the same time period the KKK started and shares several key features, including vigilantism and costumes intended to intimidate.
posted by flug at 9:25 AM on December 17, 2012

I came here to say exactly what Sunburnt said, i.e. that your mom's summary sounds as if it was learned from the novel Gone with the Wind. Others here have given references to historical sources, so I won't address that, but you might ask her what she's been reading.
posted by fingersandtoes at 10:54 AM on December 17, 2012

It's important to understand that the book The Clansman (source of the movie Birth of a Nation, as noted) was deliberate propaganda and controversial at the time, although in many ways its revisionist view of Reconstruction was academically widespread (the Dunning School), and this historical framework was published in textbooks and taught nationally through the Civil Rights era, when it began to be supplanted by more balanced approaches.
posted by dhartung at 11:01 AM on December 17, 2012

It is slowly being forgotten, but the lynchings that the Klan, as well as the kind of thinking that created it, performed were carefully documented by the people who did them as souvenir postcards. [WARNING, THIS IS SUPER GRAPHIC AND DISTURBING]. Also, here is an interactive map of where they happened. This is the legacy of the reconstruction and pre-Civil-Rights-era Klans but it is by no means gone. There are undoubtedly people who are alive today who, as children, picked over the corpses of lynching victims for teeth or bits of flesh or clothing as souvenirs of their white supremacy while their communities looked on in approval. The parents of those slain can be reasonably expected to be gone by now, but many of their brothers, sisters, cousins, children and friends are still among us. We are even still continuing to jail people for lynchings we know they orchestrated once and there are bridges still standing and used daily that were used as impromptu gallows. If you want to get a visceral sense of the legitimacy of your mother's justifications, be sure read the explanations on the cards.

In conversations with your mother, if you want to have them, you might suggest deferring to the expertise of the millions of black Americans who fled the south at the first opportunity. It was not because the Northerners with skills and educations that southerners thought beneath them were somehow encouraging them to leave, but because they were fleeing active and continuing genocide from the Red Shirts, White League, and Klan. A lot of this kind of this also ties in mightily to overwrought idealizations of southern victim-hood, and to get a good sense of where it came from I would recommend starting with the often selectively quoted letter by Sherman justifying the burning of public buildings in Atlanta.
posted by Blasdelb at 11:05 AM on December 17, 2012 [4 favorites]

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