The Ku Klux Klan, whose name comes from the Greek for circle plus their version of ‘clan’, was started as a social club by a group of Confederate veterans in Tennessee in 1866. Its initial purpose was basically to have fun. Members underwent comical initiationghs in which they were made to wear enormous donkey ears and sit in front of a mirror reciting verses of Robert Burns. They wore fancy dress and were ludicrously secretive about where they met and everything they did. But this high-spirited, boyish behaviour became affected by the ideology of some of its members, and they identified a purpose which had never been there originally. The group soon turned into something very different.
The background of the time was that white southerners were resentful of the Reconstruction programmes imposed on the south by the Republican Congress after the Civil War. Congress was attempting to introduce greater equality in society between whites and blacks, giving blacks the vote and allowing them to hold office even when they were inexperienced. This went against what white people were used to and the way they saw their former slaves. They thought that by policing the streets after dark, disguised in strange garbs that made them look like ghosts and with all sorts of tricks like skeletal hands quite literally up their sleeves, they would establish a form of curfew and prevent the thefts and other crimes which black people were supposedly committing. This was their justification, although a large part of the crimes were in fact being committed by white folk and they refused to accept the fact.
Soon after the Klan was formed, Nathan Forrest, a former slave trader and Confederate General, took control of it as its first ‘Grand Wizard’ and organised it along military lines with a strict hierarchy consisting of dragons, titans, cyclopses and so on. After that, the lynchings, tar-and-featherings, rapes and general terrifying of African Americans escalated such that in 1868, only 2 years after its founding, Forrest formally disbanded it because he was so appalled at its acts of violence. However the group by now had its own momentum and continued to grow, its atrocities worsening.
By 1870, the Ku Klux Klan had branches in almost all of the southern states. The strength of these branches varied but tended to be greater especially where blacks were in the minority or not too great a majority. South Carolina was a particular hotspot and saw, in 1871, the Union county jail being attacked by 500 masked men, as a result of which 8 black men were lynched. It was usually impossible to find anyone to testify against perpetrators because firstly they were masked, secondly they were part of a large and vengeful group, and thirdly law enforcement officials themselves were often members of the Klan or had close ties with it.
After 1870, Republican governments of southern states perceived that things were getting out of hand and appealed to Congress for help. A federal grand jury designated the Klan as a terrorist organisation. 3 Acts were passed, the strongest and most effective of which was the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871. It basically expanded federal authority, making certain crimes federal offences including conspiracy to prevent people from holding office. It was used by Ulysses Grant to crush Klan activity in South Carolina and other areas.
While the Klan had brought about a backlash in favour of equality owing to outrage at its extremes – 150 African Americans were killed by the Klan in Florida alone, for example – the aftermath of federal intervention was a gradual reassertion of white supremacy in the South. The KKK was to rise again.