• Adithi Sumitran

The Rise and Resurgence of the KKK

On December 24th, 1865, six disillusioned Confederate veterans in Pulaski, Tennessee, formed a secret club in a bitter attempt to revert the changes brought by the loss of the Civil War. There was no shortage of resentful ex-soldiers in Pulaski, so over time, the group saw an increase in membership, and their name, derived from the Greek kyklos (circle), became synonymous with fear and violence in the eyes of people of color. The dreaded name, of course, was the Ku Klux Klan. Otherwise known as the KKK, the Ku Klux Klan is a terrorist organization whose members don white hooded garbs, are vocally white supremacist, and engage in anti-immigrant activities. There have been many eras of the KKK, all of importance in understanding their growth. In the modern socio-political environment, it's worth taking a look at the reasons for its rise and resurgence in order to better understand how we’ve gotten to where we are today.


Over the course of the 1800s, sheet-wearing members of the hate group made efforts to return race-relations to their pre-war status; in short, they aimed to terrorize African Americans into submission. They were partially successful in this goal. The threat of lynching kept many newly-freed Americans from seeking public office, and it greatly tamped down the amount of Black voters during the time period. In addition, the racist sentiments of the South, amplified by the presence of the rebellious hooded men, led to the enactment of Black Codes. These were racist policies that exploited loopholes in the 13th Amendment in favor of White Americans, with the aim of returning the status quo. For instance, a clause in the amendment stated that slavery was illegal “except as punishment for crime.” The response to this? Criminalization of just about any activity that wasn’t working, and forced labor contracts for Black Americans. In essence, Black people in the South were required to continue work for White Americans, lest they be forced into slavery once more. The Ku Klux Klan made great strides in terms of limiting the progress of people of color. Fortunately, though, they were hindered in some respects during the time period by the passage of new legislation, intent on assuring Southern compliance with the postwar transition. Troops were even sent to the South to monitor and protect the freedmen, so for a time, the KKK was prevented from engaging in all that they truly wanted to do. However, the impact of Black Codes was enough to satisfy the fears of Southerners, and the KKK slowly faded from public view. While their grip on society had diminished, it was far from the end of their reign.


The 1920s, known colloquially as the Roaring Twenties, is often heralded as a time of unyielding festivity. The period brings forth sentiments of illegal liquor brewing in bathtubs and being consumed by progressive masses, who jived to jazz music as they drank. However, a closer inspection of the period indicates that booze wasn’t the only thing brewing. In fact, the 1920s saw a rise in membership in the KKK; by some estimates, the Klan had up to five million cardholders during the time period. The reasons for this surge were essentially the same as they were during the rise of the first KKK. Like the 1860s, the 1920s were a time of great social turmoil, with new ideas conflicting with established ones. Flappers, for instance, challenged pre-existing ideas of how women should behave. In Harlem, a Renaissance of African American culture challenged the ideas of white dominance. Another factor, of course, was the perceived lawlessness of the time. Around every corner, it seemed, was another gangster, bootlegger, or rule-flaunter, all spurred on by alcohol fever. It didn’t help that America was gaining new immigrants, immigrants who continued to rebuke American culture in favor of retaining their own. And, as always occurs when progressivism pushes society leftward, radical conservative groups began to emerge, demanding that the traditional way of doing things be restored. The atmosphere was perfect for a KKK revival, and so they were revived, with a bountiful supply of members aching for the return of the “good old days.'' However, while the Klan had returned, their organized violence had not. Certainly, there were numerous lynchings and hate crimes carried out by KKK members, but most of the Second Klan disapproved of violence in the pursuit of white supremacy. In fact, the KKK during this time operated more like a social club than a cult-like terror group. Members attended parties, parades, and picnics. They had charity groups and their own wedding rights. They even had youth groups, like the Ku Klux Kiddies (for real!) In a sense, the new KKK was far more dangerous than the first. While the original Klan had to hide their intentions, the new group was socially accepted, and to be a part of it was practically considered patriotic. Ultimately, though, new economic booms and changing moral ideologies foresaw the end of the Second Klan. White Americans saw themselves becoming more wealthy and successful than they’d ever been, with the wealth gap between them and their Black counterparts becoming comfortably wide. With the ethnic threat now stifled, the appeal of the Klan faded, and over time, they were gone once more from the public eye.


No decade in American history seems more entrenched in social upheaval than the 1960s. From the Vietnam War to the Civil Rights Movement, the sixties had no shortage of status quo changes, and yet again, a shift away from traditional ideas brought the Klan back with new fervor. This time, there was no united front for the Klan, and instead, numerous small groups bearing the name emerged without relations to one another. These new groups engaged in violent acts frequently, harassing civil rights activists and terrorizing people of color, all in efforts to slow progress down. Most notoriously, they bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, an act that led to the deaths of four young Black girls. Behaviors such as these cemented the reputation of the Klan as an elusive but radical group of white supremacists, a reputation which persists to this day.


As American society became more accepting of other cultures toward the end of the 20th century, Klan membership began to decline. Even now, membership in the KKK is dropping, and while some might view this as a step in the right direction, the enrollment numbers in other hate groups tell a different story. In 2019, the United States hit a record number of hate groups, with 1,020 hate groups identified. This broke the prior record of 1,018, which was created after the election of Barack Obama in 2011, though that number had dipped to only 892 in 2015, a year before Donald Trump’s election. The modern rise corresponds with Donald Trump’s election and presidency, as, according to The Guardian, hate groups grew 55% during this time. In addition, under the presidency of Donald Trump, the FBI determined there was a 20% increase in hate crimes. Given previous data on the growth of the KKK in relation to political upheaval, it’s clear that once again, politics has led to an increase in hate group membership and violence toward people of color. And with this information comes the knowledge that something must be done to prevent the resurgence of hate groups. Whether they’re the KKK or another organization, domestic terrorists are a serious problem, especially during times of great political change, like the present. As a result of this, it’s vital that we take action to prevent further deaths at the hands of the Klan, to prevent the spread of white supremacy. Because even if it isn’t blatant, white supremacy, fueled by racist thoughts and hatred, has an impact on the world around us through legislation and direct violence, and can make life more dangerous for people of color. Just look back on the past to witness this in practice: we can see that the 19th and 20th century Klan revivals caused great strife for non-white Americans, making them less likely to vote and forcing them to live in a society where racism was the norm. To prevent this from becoming a modern reality, action must be taken to prevent the spread of white supremacy. Because if we don’t, progress will be impeded once more by the violence of the hooded Klan.

References

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ku_Klux_Klan

  2. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/kkk-founded https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/flood-klan/

  3. https://www.history.com/news/black-codes-reconstruction-slavery

  4. https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/12/second-klan/509468/ https://www.fbi.gov/history/famous-cases/baptist-street-church-bombing

  5. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/18/white-nationalist-hate-groups-southern-poverty-law-center

  6. https://www.newsweek.com/hate-crimes-under-trump-surged-nearly-20-percent-says-fbi-report-1547870

  7. https://www.splcenter.org/news/2019/02/19/hate-groups-reach-record-high