White supremacist and extreme-Right organization the Ku Klux Klan began their reign of terror in Tennessee in 1865. Early on, it was a group made of largely southern Democrats who rallied against Black and White Republicans in the South and championed the suppression of equal rights for all. With many members enraged by the Reconstruction of the South after the events of the Civil War, Blacks would be terrorized by the Klan for decades to come. On this day, the Klan held its first national meeting in a bid to build structure among the loosely banded and often lawless group.
Former Confederate soldier General Nathan Bedford (pictured below right) called the meeting at the Maxwell House Hotel in the city of Nashville. It was thought that the various chapters needed to band together and report to a national chapter. Considering many Klan members were former fighters, the new national chapter was seen as a way to restore order and discontinue the actions of the wayward offshoot members.
It would all be a ruse, though, as Klan members saw the reversed fortune of Blacks as an affront to their dominance. Using mob tactics and violence to instill fear, the Klan began to rise in infamy as an oppressive and dangerous force.
By the 1870s, Klan members began to attack Black voters and this forced Republicans in Congress to pass laws that protected the rights of African Americans.
Unfortunately, the government’s efforts would crumble in 1883, after the Supreme Court ruled that Congress no longer held the authority to outlaw discrimination and abandoned the 14th Amendment.
The Klan would rise again to power in the early 20th Century, with Atlanta minister William J. Simmons finding inspiration in the 1915 film “Birth Of A Nation,” which demonized Black men as sexually aggressive toward White woman and cast the KKK as heroes. Using the power of a growing nationwide membership numbering in the millions, the Klan began to turn their collective anger on individuals other than Blacks: Catholics, Jews, immigrants, and even southern Whites who criticized them, felt the Klan’s violent wrath.
With a reported membership high at 7 million, the Klan had amazing political clout and strength. The group elected politicians kind to their cause, particularly during the years before the Great Depression. Due to the lean times of Depression, though, the Klan’s activity dwindled dramatically.
It wasn’t until the mid-1950s and the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement did the Klan become a barrier to advancement for African Americans. Many members of Klan factions in the South were police officers, so when marches and demonstrations took place, they would use their authority to exact their power.
Their underhanded tactics would be outed as a growing liberal presence and more investigative journalism highlighted the Klan’s many atrocities. The deaths of Medgar Evers; the only White woman killed for participating in the Civil Rights Movement, Viola Luizzo (pictured at left); and the Birmingham church bombings were all tied to the KKK.
Learn about the murder of Luizzo here:
By 1987, federal authorities took down major elements of the Klan and tied the group to the acts of a few loose cannons within the organization. The group’s relevance began to significantly wane as the 20th century came to a close, with several Klan members, some four decades removed from their crimes, finally seeing justice.
Times have changed drastically in the South, and the Ku Klux Klan is a mere shell of its former self. No longer dominating the landscape with intimidating propaganda, violence, and rhetoric, the group has aligned with various White supremacist groups that have since sprung up like the Aryan Nation and other extreme-Right groups.
And while they’ve largely faded, they still represent how racism and terrorism against Blacks ran rampant and unchecked in this country.