The Rise (and Fall) of the First Ku Klux Klan

Some of the historical details in this essay could be disturbing for younger readers.

In 1866, a group of defeated Confederate veterans created the Ku Klux Klan in Pulaski, Tennessee. The group consisted of the local newspaper editor, Luther McCord, his brother Frank McCord, and four others. They later insisted that they had invented the Klan’s weird rituals and costumes for entertainment, and only later thought of using them to resist Reconstruction. The national press picked up on this secretive and perhaps menacing Tennessee group in early 1868, making the Klan a cultural phenomenon in the North, as people puzzled over what it meant. Baseball teams, a Yale College eating club, circus performers, and musical numbers were named after the Ku-Klux. People wore Klan costumes to fancy dress balls.

Detail from a threat from a "Ku Klux" to Davie Jeems, a black elected official in Lincoln County, Georgia, ca. 1868. (The Gilder Lehrman Institute, GLC09090)But in the South, the Klan was, increasingly, deadly serious as it spread through the former Confederacy, bringing a reign of terror to black southerners. The war had uprooted the regime of slavery that elite white southerners had used to dominate black southerners, who proved ready to claim their share of the region’s opportunity and power. Some began to escape relations of dependency by moving to cities for non-agricultural work, negotiating better labor contracts, or even purchasing their own land. When they gained the vote with the Fifteenth Amendment, they effectively organized themselves into powerful voting blocs, and ran for local and statewide office. They demanded access to public space, walked boldly down sidewalks, and held celebrations, and even militia drills.

Klan terrorism was one tactic white southerners used to push back this empowerment. White-on-black violence was already epidemic, but the Klan could turn this racial violence into a regime of terror by presenting it as highly organized, mysterious, and unstoppable. Neither Klan victims, nor government agents, nor the northern public were sure what the Klan was: was it coordinated by some prominent southern military leader like Nathan Bedford Forrest? Was it a guerrilla afterlife of the Confederate army? Klan supporters cultivated this mystery.

Many, but not all, Ku-Klux wore disguises. These were not the white uniforms of the twentieth-century Klan: each person made his own costume, and different Klans had radically different types of costumes. Some were simple: a burlap sack with eye holes cut out, or a mask made from a piece of cloth, or even an animal skin. Some Ku-Klux smeared their faces with bootblack. Some wore their wives’ dresses. Others put more time and money into their costumes, wearing patterned robes and masks that resembled Mardi Gras or fancy-dress ball costumes. Some affixed animal horns or fake facial hair to their masks. These costumes not only hid the wearer’s identity but indicated that—whether dressed to resemble an animal, a ghost, a black man, or a woman—he was no gentleman, and was unbound by social rules.

Ku-Klux, usually in groups ranging from three to a dozen, preferred to attack victims isolated in their homes at night. Ku-Klux often rode horses, to surprise targets and evade pursuers. Poorer Ku-Klux made their attacks on foot. The level of violence in Klan attacks varied: some Ku-Klux demanded that the victim change some behavior, promising to return with violence if he did not comply. Others whipped victims, sometimes taking turns as each attacker exhausted himself. These whippings could be fatal, particularly if open wounds became infected. Sometimes, Klan attackers made certain that their violence was deadly, by hanging or shooting their victim. Ku-Klux also not infrequently victimized freedwomen, whipping or shooting them but also subjecting them to rape or other sadistic sexualized violence. In a few rare incidents, very large groups of more than one hundred staged more public attacks—jail raids or attacks on black gatherings.

Occasionally, Klan attackers taunted their victims, mocking them, making jokes, or speaking in bizarre voices. Or Ku-Klux might hang a man until he passed out, cut him down and let him live, perhaps repeating this several times. While some dismissed this behavior as a sign that the attackers were drunk, this “play” had a purpose. Of the Klan’s terrors, one of the greatest was that targets were uncertain not only whether, but how they would be attacked.

Ku-Klux ranged in social class from sons of planters to landless whites. Klan attackers and supporters, like rural white southerners, almost universally supported the Democratic Party (the party of secession) while victims, like most black people, were Republicans (the party of emancipation).

Some Ku-Klux attacks, like those surrounding the elections of 1868 and 1870, were transparently political. Klan groups targeted politically active black people, including elected officials, men carrying Republican ballots to polls, and potential voters, but also community leaders. White victims of Klan violence were drawn from that small minority of white southerners who voted Republican.

Klan attacks, though, often served other purposes. Klan attackers and victims often knew one another, sometimes well: victims recognized disguised attackers by their voices, their clothing, or even the scars on their hands. Employers used Klan attacks to coerce black people to work on their terms. Poor whites used them to eliminate competition for jobs they wanted. White people brought Klan attacks against black people who would not defer to them or yield to their interests in any number of ways. One black man was attacked because he was able to afford an expensive carriage. Klan groups used raids to steal money and other valuables black families had somehow managed to save. White people anxious about black community life used Klan violence to prevent the building of churches and schools for new black citizens.

Those targeted by the Klan fought back. Ku-Klux attacks simply were not possible where neighbors could protect each other, such as in cities, or in rural areas with substantial black majorities. Even in Klan-ridden areas, family members or neighbors might stave off attack by staying in one place, prepared to fight. Those expecting attack might sleep in the fields, where they could not be found. Even when the worst occurred, besieged families sometimes held off Klan attackers while their primary target hid or escaped. Some armed themselves and shot at attackers, driving them off and sometimes killing them. Others fought back hard with whatever tools were at hand.

Besieged freedpeople needed assistance, however. Since local governments were often either too weak to stop Klan violence or were themselves allied with Ku-Klux, victims reached out to state and federal governments. Although neither state nor federal governments had much capacity to police civilian behavior, they responded significantly to what they understood as an attack on their authority. Some state governments hired detectives to infiltrate Klans. South Carolina built a system of black militias. As subcommittees of US congressmen visited Klan-infested rural areas, interviewing Klan victims and suspected Ku-Klux, Congress passed the Enforcement Acts, which made it illegal to wear disguises in public with the intention of violating constitutional rights, gave the federal government more authority to supervise elections, and enabled the president to use the military to enforce voting rights. President Ulysses S. Grant declared martial law in nine South Carolina counties, and soldiers helped federal marshals round up hundreds of suspected Ku-Klux from 1871 through 1872.

Although the thin army presence could not directly protect most communities against Klan violence, the Klan receded before the 1872 elections. Southern white people would continue to use often deadly violence against black people, frequently with impunity, and occasionally it would be called “Klan” violence. But the supplement of terror that the Klan had produced all but ceased for generations. It would not meaningfully resurface until its reinvention in 1915.

Elaine S. Frantz is a professor of history at Kent State University. She has published two books: Ku-Klux: The Birth of the Klan in the Reconstruction Era (University of North Carolina Press, 2016) and Manhood Lost: Drunken Men and Redeeming Women in the Nineteenth-Century United States (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002). She is writing a book about the history of state and private violence, legal and illegal, in Pittsburgh from the rise of the police department in the antebellum period through the War on Drugs. Frantz is a member of the Elsinore Bennu Think Tank for Restorative Justice.