Ex-Confederates formed the KKK in December of 1865, soon after the Civil War ended. General Nathan Forrest was the first Grand Wizard, but in reality, he had little control over the nation-wide organization. The Klan was a network of autonomous cells acting on their own initiative.
Between 1865 and 1871, the KKK waged a terrorist campaign to supress Republican votes and prevent blacks from establishing independent farms. A military campaign destroyed the KKK through harsh measures and a temporary suspension of civil rights.
It can be debated whether the KKK was a terrorist organization or a Confederate Insurgency. The Federal government explicitly labeled the KKK as a “terrorist organization” in 1868. Technically, it does not matter much, because either way the KKK was a mixture of secret societies engaging in political violence. I’m only concerned with its structure and the strategy behind its attacks.
When Forrest became the first leader of the Ku Klux Klan, Northerners saw as proof of the South’s extended rebellion. The New York Times on January 20, 1868 called it a “rebel organization” comprised of “ignorant reckless young men.”
Harper’s Weekly summarized the “evil” KKK activities in 1868:
The confession of defeat does not prove the annihilation of wrong. The very first attempt made by the Southern Legislatures, assembled under President Johnson’s provisional governments, was to revive a system of partial slavery by a continuance of the old slave code. That attempt was baffled by the passage of the Civil Rights Bill….
Then it was that the Ku-Klux organization sprang into being. The object of this secret society was the accomplishment by intimidation and murder of that which open war first and unjust legislation afterward had failed to secure…its members, in ceremonial disguise, wearing sepulchral masks, and courting the aid of darkness, have murdered without stint, and where they have not murdered they have used intimidation. They have been aided by the proscription of Union men, and by the denial of labor to negroes who refused to vote the Democratic ticket. The result of these violent means of exercising political power are plainly evident in the late election returns of the Southern States.
How was the Ku Klux Klan organized?
Elaine Frantz Parsons described the makeup of the Klan(quote from wikipedia):
Lifting the Klan mask revealed a chaotic multitude of antiblack vigilante groups, disgruntled poor white farmers, wartime guerrilla bands, displaced Democratic politicians, illegal whiskey distillers, coercive moral reformers, bored young men, sadists, rapists, white workmen fearful of black competition, employers trying to enforce labor discipline, common thieves, neighbors with decades-old grudges, and even a few freedmen and white Republicans who allied with Democratic whites or had criminal agendas of their own. Indeed, all they had in common, besides being overwhelmingly white, southern, and Democratic, was that they called themselves, or were called, Klansmen.
The broad range of targets encouraged many individuals to join the Klan for different reasons. Some white businessmen joined to suppress black competition, others helped Democrats win elections, others because they were hate-filled lunatics, others were opportunistic criminals who just wanted to rob blacks.
The Klan is a classic example of a network insurgency. It was entirely decentralized with independent bands acting in concert through a common ideology. The cells recruited members who acted for any number of personal reasons making each cell unique. It is difficult to describe what the Klan was since it lacked coherency.
Ku Klux Klan Strategy
The Ku Klux Klan concentrated their terror campaign against the Republicans and Blacks. They attacked and intimidated school teachers, Republican politicians, black farmers and businessmen with the intent of suppressing Republican votes and economic independence for blacks.
The early Klan used any kind of face covering and only adopted the famous white robes later on. Even though the Southern population was intially sympathetic, the Klan needed to hide their identity in order to evade Federal prosecution.
Night raids by small bands of a dozen or so men would attack a black farmstead, where the lone man would be outnumbered, outgunned and likely be taken by surprised. They normally disarmed the man, intimidated him, and if that failed, they tortured or murdered him. The Klan similarly attacked Republican politicians, schoolteachers, and businessmen. Rhetorically, the Klan claimed the insurgency was directly only against the Republican Party and the occupying army in defense of state’s rights.
Klan terrorist attacks occurred throughout the South, from Tennessee to Virginia. Despite its decentralized organization, the Klan did not attack blacks at random, but carried out their campaign to supplement a form of primitive electoral strategy.
They concentrated their attacks in Georgia and South Carolina where the black population was largest. The Klan did not hit the black communities head on, however. They strategically suppressed the black vote in the Piedmont counties where the black and white populations were mixed.
The South can be broken up into three geographic/economic zones: the Appalachian Mountains, The Piedmont plateau and the Coastal plains. Each region had a different demographic makeup.
The Coastal regions provided the best farmland for slave plantations. In this region, the blacks were the majority of the population. After abolition, the freedmen politically dominated these regions, particularly in South Carolina and Georgia.
The Appalachia region had few blacks and the Scots-Irish population was pro-Union and more independent than other southerners. The most populated region, West Virginia, joined the Union for the war. Some Klansmen were recruited from this region, but it was never a real center of operations.
The Piedmont Plateau was different. Small yeoman farmers made up most of the population and many areas were an even mix of whites and blacks. The plurality of the Southern population lived in or near this region, so winning the Piedmont counties was necessary to control the state governments. If blacks could have established themselves as independent farmers and voters, it would have been in the Piedmont region.
Elections were often close in the Piedmont region. Where the Klan sufficiently suppressed the black votes, the Democratic Party could win. They were successful in many countries, enabling Democratic politicians to re-enter politics and pass laws to discriminate against blacks. The effect was cumulative.
The lack of central direction proved to be a benefit for the Klan. There were many whites in the Piedmont region who were disgruntled after losing the Civil War and witnessed the rise of freedmen in their home counties. Most males were veterans and kept their weapons after the war ended. They easily formed small vigilante gangs to engage in brutality against blacks and Republicans. The Klan was less an organization than an umbrella group for a large number of automous cells and gangs. By adopting the Klan ‘uniform’ and rhetoric, these vigilantes tried to legitimize themselves as a political movement.
The Federal government had great difficulty eliminating every Klan cell, but military force managed to eliminate the KKK over the long run. TheForce Act of 1970 and the
Civil Rights Act of 1971 were important in supressing the movement.
The Force Act suspended habeas corpus, declared martial law in South Carolina, and granted the US Federal Army significant political and policing powers. The harsh laws and extreme punishment for acts of terrorism defeated and destroyed the Ku Klux Klan.
The Klan fell in part because it lost the popular support of whites. The “moderate” Democrats wanted to take away black independence through piecemeal laws, not midnight violence. KKK tactics were seen as counterproductive and extended the occupation of the South.
President Grant’s military victory over the KKK did not save Reconstruction. The Democratic “Redeemers” came to power and from 1873 onward, they enacted the Jim Crow laws.
Some of the first laws passed by the Democratic Party in the south were gun control laws. They banned many shotguns and military pistols. They also banned blacks from owning dogs.
Why dogs and shotguns? The Democrats intended to disarm blacks and limit their ability to manage farmland. The loss of shotguns and dogs made it more difficult to control wild animals that could ruin crops. These were the first of many laws designed to strip land-holding blacks of their property and right of contract.
Disarming blacks was an even bigger goal. Lynch mobs and other vigilantes could easily victimize disarmed blacks. Lynching tactics may have been inspired by the Klan tactics, but in any case, it was as effective in intimidating the black population into submission. Lynching worked better than the Klan, as a matter of fact. It was a form of legitimized and legally sanctioned terrorism.
The political action stripped the blacks of the right to vote, the right to bear arms, and the right of economic contracts. They were quickly reduced to sharecropping and debt bondage.
While I initially studied this to look at an older example of a network insurgency, I found that much of the rhetoric from the period mirrored ours today. I was reviewing some of the anti-lynching literature by Ida Wells, W.E.B. DuBois and others, and ended up reading through many Southerners’ defense of the KKK and the lynching practice.
This is what struck me: Many Southerners claimed that the terrorist campaign between 1865-1971 was not carried out by the Ku Klux Klan. They did not deny the attacks occurred. Instead, they claimed that the attacks were by ordinary thugs and criminals pretending to be Klansmen.
There are too many examples to cite, so I will cite a very notable example. President Woodrow Wilson repeated the classic defense of the KKK in his History of the American People.
Wilson disassociated the terror campaign of the 1860s from the national KKK. He admitted atrocities occurred, but explained that these crimes were not committed by the KKK but by “reckless men not of their order, malicious fellows of the baser sort [who] imitated their disguises and borrowed their methods.” Criminals, he claims, pretended to be the KKK as cover for routine crimes like robbery and rape. The real KKK was a noble organization that never engaged in terrorism and was dedicated to fighting Republican “corruption and destruction of society, a reign of ignorance, a regime of power basely used.” Quite.
Now, let’s be honest. If a gang violently attacks blacks in the middle of the night while wearing white hoods, then they might be the Ku Klux Klan. I’m not sure where people got lost on this point. The lack of a unified Klan organization does not make these attacks any less real.
I’ve noticed a large segment of the population will claim that decentralized insurgencies and terrorist groups are not real threats because they lack a coherent hierarchy and a chain of command. Any government action against them is a disguised assault on civil liberties, state’s rights, and whatever else.
But the Ku Klux Klan’s war against freedmen was very real.
Here’s a set of sources I used
Harper’s Weekly primary sources.
W.E.B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America
James McPherson, Negro’s Civil War