The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) was founded in 1866, following the end of the American Civil War, and was a manifestation of the strong resistance of many disaffected Confederate Army members to the establishment of equality for African Americans.
The Klan name came from the Greek word “kyklos” – meaning circle – and initially the group targeted African Americans as the main enemy, but also on the “hate list” was the Republican Party that led the impetus for the reform of racial relations.
To avoid identification and also to frighten the local populations Klan members dressed in long white robes and hoods, and launched violent night attacks that targeted African Americans and Republicans, with beatings and lynchings.
This lawlessness became so rampant in the South that the US Congress acted and passed stringent laws that specifically targeted the Klan, resulting in its suppression during 1871.
However there was a strong resurgence of the Klan in the early 1920’s when the group broadened their list of dislikes. In addition to maintaining their anti-black philosophy, they became strongly anti-Catholic and anti-semitic as well, seeing themselves as white Protestant supremacists. One of their coded phrases was O.R.I.O.N, meaning “Our Race is Our Nation”.
During this era, the time of the so-called “Second Klan”, the group amassed significant power, political and social, attracting an estimated membership of some five million by the mid 1920’s. The trademark night rallies were practiced openly, with hooded costumes and burning crosses featured – often followed by violent attacks directed at those they perceived to be enemies.
The Second Klan eventually collapsed because of internal divisions and community opposition to their criminal activities and by 1930 the estimated membership had fallen dramatically to around 30,000.
The “Third Klan” then rose during the late 1950’s and into the 1960’s mostly in response to the Civil Rights movement that was vehemently opposed by many in the Southern states. The Klan was heavily implicated in the infamous 1963 church bombing in Birmingham and in of the murder of civil rights workers in Mississippi in 1964.
After this peak in activity the power of the Klan declined again and membership today is estimated to be only around 5,000.
Image: A night rally of the Ku Klux Klan in Chicago, c 1920, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.