Ku Klux Klan:The Rise and Fall of the Invisible Empire

The Ku Klux Klan was the child of war, more to the point it was the child of defeat in war for by April 1861 the Southern States of America from which it would emerge had banded together to form a Confederacy and break away from a Union they saw as threatening their way of life. In the meantime, the recently elected President of the United States Abraham Lincoln who had been so unpopular that he had not even appeared on the ballot paper of most Southern States and whose effigy had been burned in the streets of Southern towns was talking peace but preparing for war – under no circumstances was he willing to even contemplate the break-up of the Union and if it was to come to a force of arms then so be it.

The one issue that divided people more than any other and had done so almost from the founding of the Republic was slavery and if it was not exactly the cause of the war, it seems certain that without slavery in place the war would never have been fought. It was the point of separation upon which there could be no reconciliation.

On 4 February 1861, the States of South Carolina, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas formally seceded from the Union. They were to be followed soon after by Virginia, Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina.

Abraham Lincoln, who considered himself a moderate, was anti-slavery but he had never called for its abolition merely its curtailment – there should be no new Slave States, he insisted. As such, he was never truly a hero of the anti-slavery Free-Soil Movement but as President his stance ensured he became an enemy of the South, hence the rush to secession and by the time he took Office on 4 March 1861, conflict seemed almost inevitable.

The dividing lines had been so clearly drawn that there was little attempt at negotiation and despite Lincoln’s pleas for common sense to prevail in the early hours of 12 April Confederate batteries fired upon the Federal Armoury at Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbour. The Civil war had begun.

In four years of violent struggle it is now estimated that as many as 720,000 Americans in military service died, killed by other Americans before in what was to become known in the South as the ‘Lost Cause’ the Confederacy was forced to concede defeat.

During the war much of the South had been laid waste particularly the States of Georgia and South Carolina, the beating heart of the secession movement and there was a great deal of bitterness on both sides of the conflict but particularly in the Southern States who remained determined to maintain the social order and way of life they had fought so long and sacrificed so many young men to preserve.

The victorious North however thought otherwise and stripped of the moderating influence of Abraham Lincoln who had been assassinated in April 1865, the Congress in Washington was determined to punish those States that had embarked upon the course of rebellion with at every possible opportunity Radical Republicans in Congress would unfurl the “Bloody Red Shirt” and blame the South for all of the Nation’s woes.

In 1866, the States of the old Confederacy were divided into five Military Districts governed by a General supported by Federal troops, many of them black and in their wake followed a hybrid of crooks, charlatans, and asset strippers known collectively as Carpetbaggers. The South was effectively under occupation as fallow land, abandoned farms, and disused factories were bought up on the cheap by Northern entrepreneurs and in a population of only 9 million there were 4 million recently freed slaves with no love for their former white masters in need of employment.

In March 1865, the Congress in Washington had established the Freeman’s Bureau. It had been designed to provide help to the many recently freed slaves and it built schools and hospitals but the various attempts to extend its powers were vetoed by Andrew Johnson, who had succeeded Lincoln as President.

All black men now also had the right to vote in elections and those States that had previously been in rebellion could only gain formal re-admission into the Union by implementing the new male suffrage laws. The response in many Southern States was to introduce the Black Codes leading eventually to the Jim Crowe Segregation Laws. These required any black man who registered to vote to be able to sign his own name, read from a book, or answer a long list of questions that he could not possibly know the answer to. Not being able to do any of these things would disqualify him from the registration process. Black men could also be excluded from sitting on a jury or testifying against a white man in court on the same grounds.

President Johnson vetoed any attempts to curtail the implementation of the Black Codes. He did not want to be seen to be punishing the South and was opposed to the Radical Republicans attempts to apportion blame for starting the Civil War, and likewise their demands that the South should be made to pay for doing so.

He believed that his attempts at reconciliation as he saw it were what Abraham Lincoln would have wanted, but he neither had Lincoln’s political nous or his moral authority and it appeared instead to his many opponents that he merely wished to restore the old pre-war South. It was to lead to a vote for his impeachment which he survived only by the narrowest possible margin.

Within ten years of the end of the Civil War and the emancipation of the slaves white rule had been re-imposed in most of the South; white plantation owners were employing cheap black labour in conditions little less harsh than slavery, secessionist politicians were being re-elected to Congress, and white supremacists were sitting in the Governor’s Mansion.

The resurgence of white authority in the South had been greatly assisted by the many groups of young men throughout the Southern States that organised to resist Northern encroachment and maintain the status quo one of which the Ku Klux Klan had initially been formed in Pulaski, Tennessee in May, 1865 by ex-Confederate Army Officers as a fraternal society but soon evolved into a nascent self-defence league.

kkk poster early x

Its popularity quickly spread throughout the Deep South and in 1867 an organisation was formed in Nashville to bring all the different branches together with its first effective ‘Grand Wizard’ the legendary cavalry commander Nathan Bedford Forrest, an ex-slave owner, brilliant battlefield tactician and ruthless guerrilla fighter notorious for executing any black man found under arms or captured in uniform. The Klan was soon to prove no less ruthless in its fight to preserve the Old South

nathan b forrest x

Dressed in their distinctive uniform of white sheets and hoods they held rallies designed to cow the black population whilst Klan Night-Riders criss-crossed the countryside burning black owned farms, destroying crops, and lynching those who opposed or resisted them and hundreds, possibly thousands of Negroes, carpetbaggers, and those deemed undesirable were assaulted and murdered in the years immediately following the end of the Civil War.

Indeed, such was the scale of Klan violence that President Grant felt compelled to act and on 20 April 1871, he passed the Ku Klux Klan Act which proscribed the organisation, but it was already too late for with its work almost done the Klan had already begun to disband itself whilst those that remained, forced underground soon became known as the ‘Invisible Empire.’

By 1877, the Old Order had been restored in the South with every Republican in the South removed from Office and replaced them with conservative, often ex-Confederate, ex-slave owning Democrats. Proscribed by law and seemingly no longer required it appeared that the Klan had ceased to exist, and for most Americans it had.

In 1915, the legendary movie director D.W Griffith, a native of Kentucky and the son of a Confederate Army Officer released his Civil War epic Birth of a Nation. It was a blockbuster in every sense of the word, received a rapturous reception, and was a rip-roaring success.

Its story was largely based on a book called ‘The Klansman’ which was entirely sympathetic to the Confederate cause and portrayed the Negroe race as drunken, idle, untrustworthy and lascivious beasts rampaging across the South as the Klansmen heroically rode to the rescue of imperilled white womanhood, and this was how the movie was viewed though Griffith was later to say that he had wanted to depict the sufferings of the South in general.

Despite the criticism that was levelled at it in some quarters it was a box office smash and costing an expensive $110,000 it was to make in takings well over $60 million.

Condemned by black organisations and in the liberal press for its crude and unmitigated racism but praised by President Woodrow Wilson who had a private viewing in the White House and was later heard to remark, ‘thank God for the Klan,’ the movie which had cost an expensive and unprecedented $110,000 to make took more than $60 million at the box office but despite the endorsement of the President, Griffith was hurt by the criticism and in his next movie ‘Intolerance’ he tried to redress the balance. It was a box office flop.

Birth of a Nation had also been made at a time when racist murders in the South were on the increase.

One of the more sensational occurred following the indictment on 23 May 1913 in Atlanta, Georgia, of Leo Frank, a factory manager, for the murder of 13 year old Mary Phagan, an employee of the company. Frank was Jewish and Northern and though the evidence against him was circumstantial he was roundly condemned by the Southern press.

The case against him rested on the evidence of a black janitor Jim Conley and during the trial, Frank’s Defence Attorney Luther Rosser accused Conley of being a dirty, filthy, drunken, lying nigger” and Frank during his own testimony asked the Jury how they could possibly believe the “perjured, vapourising of a black brute?”

But the attempt by Frank and his Defence Team to play the race card failed.

Anti-Semitism was just as rife in Atlanta as was anti-black sentiment and Frank was found guilty and sentenced to death but because of the discrepancies in the police investigation the State Governor commuted the sentence to life imprisonment.

On the evening of 16 August 1915, Frank was abducted from his prison in Milledgeville and driven 150 miles to within sight of Mary Phagan’s grave and hanged. The drive had deliberately replicated Sherman’s March to the Sea during the Civil War.

The release of Birth of a Nation along with the Frank incident played an integral part in the revival of the Klan.

kkk simmons x

The Alabama physician and de-frocked Methodist preacher William Joseph Simmons, was recovering from an accident when he was inspired by both events to reform the Klan and on the night of 16 October 1915, he led a group of men, many of whom had been present at the Frank lynching, up Stone Mountain overlooking Atlanta where they set fire to a large wooden cross. The burning cross could be seen in the city and for many miles around and was in future to become the most visible sign of Klan activity.

But this was not the Klan of old. It no longer sought just to preserve and defend the status-quo. It had a political agenda all of its own – the Ku Klux Klan had been reborn.

The newly-reconstituted Klan stood to protect native born, white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants. It was opposed to Roman Catholics, who owed their allegiance to the Pope, a foreign despot; Jews, who were Christ-killers; and Negroes, who were racially inferior. They were also anti-Communist which was an atheist ideology; anti-Immigrant and against those who leeched on American society; and anti-Labour in opposition to those who denied the free-market and therefore the pursuit of the American dream. It espoused Christian family values, advocated the Protestant work ethic, cherished white womanhood, and supported the temperance movement and campaigned for the continuation of prohibition.

This was the new Klan, no longer invisible but public, overtly political and openly ambitious – they wanted power and they made no bones about it.

The 1920’s were to be the high-water mark of Klan support, and it was soon to spread from its Southern heartland to make its core area of activity the mid-West though its headquarters remained in Dallas, Texas. Its increased popularity during the 1920’s was mainly down to two factors:

It had been steadfast in its support of the Temperance League and fully backed the 18th Amendment and the passage of the Volstead Act of 28 October, 1919 that banned the production, distribution, purchase, and consumption of alcohol anywhere in the United States. The Klan received a great deal of Kudos from its strict moral posturing and commitment to abstinence.

They also exploited the resentment of those white southern soldiers who had been forced to serve alongside black troops during the First World War.

Unemployed Veterans who had been willing to put their life on the line for their country now saw themselves being treated as second class citizens as returning to unemployment or reduced wages they complained bitterly that while they had been away fighting Negroes had taken all the jobs.

It was a complaint that the Klan exploited to the full as more black farms were burned and the number of attacks increased.

The Klan denied involvement and perhaps for the first time many were willing to believe them, or at least give them the benefit of the doubt.

kkk evans x

In November 1922, William Simmons was ousted as Imperial Wizard by the Alabama dentist Hiram W Evans who took over at a time when there seemed to be no stopping the Klan.

No longer just a regional and rural organisation it was now making great headway in the cities of the north. In Detroit alone it could boast 40,000 members, and by the end of 1924 it had six million members nationwide, or some 15% of the adult population.

kkk poster x

The Ku Klux Klan was affiliated to the Democratic Party and at its 1924 National Convention to elect a Presidential Candidate it got the opportunity to flex its new-found political muscle as in what was to become known as the Klan-bake, Evans and the Klan leadership refused to support the front-runner the Catholic Al Smith instead supporting his rival, William G McAdoo. For over a week the dispute dragged on with the Klan holding night time rallies outside the Convention Hall in full regalia and with burning crosses.

Inside the Convention Hall fist fights broke out as temperatures ran high and the bad publicity it evoked was excruciating for the Party yet after 103 separate ballots the issue still remained, unresolved. Indeed, so great was the embarrassment that the three times Presidential Candidate William Jennings Bryan was drafted in to negotiate a deal. The Klan eventually agreed to support a compromise candidate John W Davis but they had made their point and the next time they would choose the Democratic Nominee.

By the end of 1924, the Ku Klux Klan appeared to be the rising political power in the land.

They represented, or so it seemed, the values of the white Protestant working class – God, sobriety, hard work, and the preservation of a traditional way of life free from foreign influences but it was all a sham and within four years of the Klanbake the whole rotten edifice of the Invisible Empire would be brought crashing to the ground and one man alone would be responsible – D C Stephenson.

d c stephenson x

David Curtiss Stephenson was born in Houston, Texas, on 21 August 1891 who by the time he arrived in Evansville, Indiana in 1920 had already been a member of both the Socialist Party and the Democratic Party. Having settled in Indiana he now joined the Ku Klux Klan.

An able administrator and charismatic speaker whose brand of blue-collar popularism went down a storm with both the steel workers of Gary and other cities and the farmers of the still largely rural State he quickly rose through the ranks of the party to become Grand Dragon. Under his leadership membership of the Klan in Indiana rose to an all time high of 250,000.

He had also backed Hiram J Evans in his bid to become Grand Wizard and his reward for doing so was to be made the Grand Dragon of 22 other Northern States.

D.C. Stephenson, or Steve as he was known, seemed to epitomise everything that people admired about the new Klan. He was sober, hard-working, and a committed Christian. He even eschewed violence, denounced the burning of crosses, and lent his support to community projects across the racial divide. Or so it seemed, the truth was to prove very different.

madge oberholtze x

At a party thrown by Ed Jackson, the Republican Candidate for Governor, he met a 29 year old school teacher Madge Oberholtzer, who ran a literacy programme in the State. Stephenson soon became obsessed with the sexually naive Madge who despite wanting to be associated with such a powerful man she knew could help advance her programme repeatedly spurned his advances.

Frustrated by his inability to woo Madge, Stephenson decided to take what he wanted instead and invited her to meet him at his home on the pretext of discussing any help he and the Klan could provide. She was reluctant to go but could not turn down such a golden opportunity but upon her arrival Stephenson plied her with alcohol, drugged, and kidnapped her.

On 15 March 1925, on a train journey to Chicago he repeatedly beat and raped her. In doing so, he bit her all over her body to such an extent that someone who saw her later said that she looked as if she had been chewed by a cannibal.

Frightened and traumatised while in Chicago Madge managed to slip away long enough to purchase some mercuric chloride tablets from a pharmacist with which she hoped to commit suicide. They failed to kill her and instead she became seriously ill spending days in a hotel room writhing and screaming in agony.

Rather than take her to a doctor and possibly save her life, Stephenson left her to suffer before telling his accomplices to take her back home to Indiana. Before they did so Madge threatened him with the law, to which Stephenson laughed and famously replied:

“I am the law in the State of Indiana.”

Returned home Madge immediately sought urgent medical attention but it was too late and on 15 April 1925, she died in great pain of kidney failure brought on by mercury poisoning. Before doing so however she made a death-bed deposition which was enough for the family lawyer to bring a case of second-degree murder against D.C Stephenson.

Stephenson was brash and arrogant in the Courtroom, not believing for one moment that an all white, male jury, many of whom were or had been Klan members, would ever convict him. He also knew that most of the political establishment in Indiana were on the Klan’s payroll.

He also knew that they knew he had the evidence to prove it.

The Trial made national headlines and as the details of it began to emerge public sentiment began to turn against him, and as a consequence against the Klan. Soon members began deserting the organisation in droves.

In an attempt to stem the tide Hiram J Evans began to distance himself from Stephenson before finally denouncing him outright.

kkk penn ave xx

In August 1925, he led 40,000 fully robed Klansmen down Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington, in a show of strength but with Party membership further dissipating with every new revelation it was apparent that the Klan was fast becoming a paper tiger.

In Court D.C Stephenson was revealed to be a violent, drunken lecher and the man who had seemingly epitomised everything good about the new Klan had been a fraud, the paragon of all its virtues had become the purveyor of nothing but vice and on 14 November 1925 he was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Still, he expected to be pardoned by the Governor Ed Jackson.

When this did not happen he handed over for publication all of the documents he had relating to the corrupt relationship the Klan had with leading politicians throughout the States he controlled.

If he was to go down then he would take everyone else with him and within four years of Stephenson’s conviction Klan membership in the United States had fallen from over 6 million to under 30,000. Unable to halt the decline in 1939, Hiram J Evans sold what remained of the Klan to the Indiana vet James A Colescott, a Nazi sympathiser.

Under his leadership Klan membership declined even further as they became associated with attempts to disrupt the American war effort. In 1944, the Inland Revenue Service filed for $685,000 in back taxes from what was left of the Klan, With no possibility of meeting such a demand Colescott chose to disband it.

It seemed that the Ku Klux Klan was finished – but it wasn’t of course, and would have yet another revival.

On 1 December, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, Rosa Parks, a 43 year old black seamstress refused to give up her seat on a bus to a white man. She wasn’t the first black woman ever to do so but the mood in the Deep South had changed and on this occasion the incident made headlines around the world it being just four months since a fourteen year old black boy Emmett Till, had been murdered in Mississippi for whistling at a white girl. The Deep South remained a dangerous place for a Negroe to step out of line.

Forced to leave the bus Rosa was later convicted of breaking the law and fined but the consequences of her defiance were to be far more profound and her treatment sparked the Montgomery Bus Boycott which was to lead to a Supreme Court ruling that judged Montgomery’s segregation of its buses to be unconstitutional.

The Supreme Court’s ruling was the first dent in the South’s policy of racial apartheid.

The boycott was also to see the emergence on the scene of a young Baptist Minister, Martin Luther King, and the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement but its emergence was to bring in its wake a revival in the fortunes of the Ku Klux Klan.

Whereas the former sought to change the South and create equality for all before the law the latter was no less determined to preserve the privileged status of the white population.

With the majority of Negroes in the South effectively disenfranchised, for example in Mississippi where blacks made up 28% of the population only 2% were eligible to vote, the central plank of the Civil Rights Movement was voter registration. They were second class citizens in their own State and their own country, and as long as they were prevented from voting it would remain so.

Martin Luther King and the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People were determined to change this.

In the early hours of the morning of 21 June 1964, three civil rights workers, two young Jewish men, James Goodman and Michael Schwerner, and a black man, James Chaney, were stopped for speeding in Neshoba County, Mississippi, by Deputy Cecil Price. After spending a night in the cells they were released and escorted to a spot near the County Line by Deputy Price. There they were ordered to stop and wait as the local Klan gathered. Shortly after, they were dragged from the car and severely beaten before being shot to death and buried in a lime pit.

After months of frenzied investigation carried out under the spotlight of intense media scrutiny the Federal Bureau of Investigation made a number of arrests.

Aware that they would be unable to secure a conviction for murder in a Mississippi Court the accused were instead tried on the lesser Federal charge of depriving the victims of their civil rights.Found guilty, Cecil Price, Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers, and five others were sentenced to between three and ten years in prison. None were to serve more than six.

Earlier on 12 June 1963, Medger Evers, a native of Mississippi and a Second World War veteran was murdered outside his house by Klan member Byron de la Beckwith.

Evers had been prominent in the Civil Rights Movement and the Field Representative for the NAACP in the State and
his murder caused an outcry throughout America. Even so, and despite the overwhelming evidence against him, de la Beckwith was not brought to justice until 1994.

In the summer of 1963, the Governor of Alabama George Wallace spoke of the need for more funerals to stop this damned desegregation. This was said hot on the heels of his famous declaration: “Segregation now, Segregation tomorrow, Segregation forever.”

On 16 September 1963, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, a centre of local civil rights activity, was dynamited. Four young black girls, 14 year old Addie Mae Collins, Carole Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, and Denise McNair, aged just 11, were killed.

The explosives had been set by Thomas Blanton, Herman Cash, Bobby Frank Cherry, and Robert Chambliss, all members of the United Klan’s of America. This fact was well known at the time and appears to have been widely circulated locally. Despite this the crime was to remain officially unsolved until 1977, when Chambliss was at last convicted.

Blanton and Cherry were not tried and convicted until the year 2000, Cash had died earlier.

In May, 1963, the so-called Freedom Riders left Washington in buses bound for the South with black and white students travelling together as the idea was to challenge the concept of segregated interstate travel.

As the buses approached Birmingham, Alabama, they were attacked by furious mobs hurling bricks, bottles, and petrol bombs. Meanwhile the local Police Chief Eugene “Bull” Connor had arranged with the Klan for there to be a 15 minute window of opportunity for them to attack the students as they left the buses upon their arrival in Birmingham before the police would intervene. They seized their opportunity with relish savagely beating the students with baseball bats and iron bars.

Many of those who were badly injured were later refused treatment in the city’s hospitals.

As narrow-minded in their actions as they were bigoted in their views, Klan violence only served to hasten the end of segregation, the very thing they had vowed to defend.

On 2 July 1964, President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act securing equal rights for all American citizens.

Despite its defeat the Klan did not go away and sporadic acts of violence were to continue for many years to come.

In recent times however it has been overshadowed by the emergence of white supremacist paramilitary groupings, the so-called Militia, conspiratorial and with a grievance against the Government. This grievance would culminate in the bombing of the Alfred P Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City on 19 April, 1995, that killed 168 people and seriously injured a further 680.

The bomb had been planted by army veteran and Militia member Timothy McVeigh.

It was the worst ever terrorist atrocity on American soil before 9/11. McVeigh, who refused to appeal against his sentence of death, was executed by lethal injection on 11 June, 2001.

The Ku Klux Klan still exists as an active organisation though it has around only 6,000 members. During the 1990’s it underwent a makeover under the leadership of the articulate, charismatic, media-savvy David Duke, and moved more into the mainstream. Even so, it has made few political inroads.

No longer restricted in its message to burning crosses on distant mountain tops it has since sought to create links via the World-Wide Web with other Far-Right groups in the rest of the world, particularly Europe.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked