National Army Museum

The Ku Klux Klan founded

The white supremacist group was founded on December 24th, 1865.

In the hood: two members of the Ku Klux Klan, c.1870
In the hood: two members of the Ku Klux Klan, c.1870

The war between the States ended in 1865 with the North victorious and the Confederate South defeated. Slavery in the South was now illegal, the former slaves had the vote and groups of white Republicans started collecting batches of them and escorting them to the polls. The situation was resented and small white terrorist groups formed at various places to keep the blacks down and white supremacy intact. Far the best known would be the Ku Klux Klan.

The Klan began in Tennessee, in the small town of Pulaski, near Memphis. It was founded by Confederate army veterans at a drinking club there and the strange but memorable name was a combination of ‘clan’ and the Greek word kuklos, meaning ‘circle’ or, in this case, social club. Dressed up in scary costumes with hoods and masks, members rode about at night threatening and frightening blacks. They demanded that blacks either vote Democrat or not vote at all. They met defiance with beatings, whippings and sometimes murder. They burned blacks’ houses down and drove black farmers off their land and they extended their hostilities to southern whites who opposed them and the so-called ‘carpetbaggers’, white infiltrators from the North. 

The Klan loved weird titles, Grand Dragon and such, and a former Confederate cavalry general, Nathan Bedford Forrest, is said to have been for a time the Klan’s leader as Grand Imperial Wizard. In 1868 he said that the Klan had well over 500,000 members in the southern states, but that he was not involved.

The original Klan faded away in the 1870s after the federal government had taken action and many members had been arrested and punished, but it had helped to make the South a Democrat political stronghold. It was refounded in 1915, inspired by the film The Birth of a Nation by the pioneering Hollywood director D.W. Griffith, which shone an admiring light on the original Klan. It has existed with very slowly declining influence ever since.

The History Today Newsletter

Sign up for our free weekly email

X