The Ku Klux Klan is back in the spotlight. Huw Williams looks at its blood-drenched record.
The film BlacKkKlansman by Spike Lee, in the context of the rise of the far-right in the US and globally, has once again put a spotlight on the history of the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). The KKK claims a near 150-year history since its origins in the US’s Deep South after the American Civil War of 1861-65.
The post-Civil War period was one in which America struggled to define itself following the overthrow of slavery. During the five years or so after the war the KKK terrorised black communities. The horrific method of death by lynching became its hallmark, alongside the garish white hood and burning cross.
It was suppressed, but the legacy of the KKK was strong enough for white supremacists to relaunch the organisation during the First World War, becoming a mass organisation of millions amid the huge social unrest that shook the US in the 1920s. By 1930 the KKK had declined in spectacular fashion, but it was to enjoy a third, though smaller, wave of growth as a reactionary response to the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and 60s.
At the start of the Civil War the Northern leaders dithered and despite having the majority of the country’s industry a Union victory was far from certain. Republican President Abraham Lincoln was radicalised and drastically changed tactics, issuing a proclamation emancipating the slaves and therefore putting the majority of the workforce in the South actively on the North’s side.
A wave of radicalism spread across the country and black men joined the army in their thousands. But, just days after the war ended Lincoln was assassinated. His conservative successor Andrew Johnson tried to reconstruct the South by appeasing its defeated leaders, while stopping black people from gaining citizens’ rights. This was when the KKK was first formed by ex-Confederate troops.
But Johnson was pushed aside by radical forces in the Republican Party and a period known as Radical Reconstruction emerged. Active in their own liberation, many former slaves demanded social change, working with allies in the occupation army and the Republicans. They got the vote, access to education, the right to own property and to take office — the first black senator was from Mississippi in 1870.
Each change incensed the old rulers and it was in the run-up to the presidential election of 1868 that the KKK developed as a formidable terrorist force. It was determined to stop black people voting. In Kansas its members killed 2,000 Republicans, the majority black, in Georgia around 3,000 and Louisiana around 1,000. In New Orleans and other areas they led race riots driving out thousands of black residents and slaughtering hundreds.
This battle was not one-sided. Former black soldiers formed militias with white allies and fought back. In 1870 and 1871 the federal government passed legislation and used occupying troops to suppress the Klan. But in 1877 the national Republican Party did a deal to withdraw the federal troops. It represented the Northern industrial capitalist class and it was eager for order, stability and profits. The attempt at a radical reconfiguration of the South was ended and the Democrats—then the party of the slave owners—were left to push through the Jim Crow Laws instituting segregation.
The second wave of the KKK, emerging from the First World War, is in some senses the most fascinating. It contradicts most of the common assumptions about the KKK. It was a mass movement which at its zenith in the mid-1920s had anything between 2 and 6 million members. Its membership was concentrated in the Northern states, not the South; it was heavily made up of people from the middle class not the poor; and it was largely urban and not rural.
In the industrial northern heartlands, the KKK had, for a brief period, a staggering presence and mobilising power. In 1925 the Klan marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington DC with 40,000 in attendance. Estimates of KKK membership in the state of Illinois were around 400,000 and Washington State 300,000. Chicago, the great industrial centre and location of a multicultural working class, saw an estimated membership of 50,000; Seattle around 30,000. The KKK also had a women’s division, Women of the Ku Klux Klan Auxiliary, which boasted a membership of half a million.
Yet this was an organisation known to be based on violence and with an arcane structure known as “the invisible empire” and positions in the organisation with titles such as “Grand Cyclops”. How could it become attractive to such large numbers of people?
Several factors are at play, some of which could also be found elsewhere in the world where fascist movements were growing, others more specific to the US.
One factor was the Great Migration of millions of black people from the Southern states to the North from 1916 onwards. In the early 1900s some 90 percent of African Americans lived in the South; by 1970 this had fallen to 53 percent. It was also a migration from rural to urban areas as people went in search of the new industrial jobs.
They were also escaping the virulent racism and segregation of the South. But there was a racist backlash in the cities across the North, which played out in race riots and violence against African Americans, stirred up and expressed through the newly-reformed Klan.
Much research has shown that the KKK drew heavily on what Marxists would call the middle class. This included small business people, doctors, accountants and lawyers. In this sense it replicated fascist movements, which were growing in much of Europe at this time.
Another similarity to Europe is that the First World War generated a huge wave of militancy among American workers, which terrified the ruling class. While the US didn’t see the level of struggle and class consciousness to be found in Germany or Italy, or produce revolutionary organisation on the scale of Russia, there were extremely bitter, large and violent confrontations between workers, bosses and the state. This was a period of intense class confrontations at the same time as dreadful reactionary race riots in many cities across the country.
Between 1917 and 1920 2 million workers joined unions, an increase of 70 percent. It is estimated that around a quarter of all US workers took strike action at some point during 1919.
That year saw an all-out steel strike of 350,000 workers lasting three months, large strikes in the vast coalfields, and a three-day general strike in Seattle in solidarity with dock workers and in opposition to the union leaders. There was also an all-out strike of police in Boston for three days trying to win the right to join an independent union.
Local strikes in every major city in the US increased the fear of the ruling and middle classes. Theatres were shut down on Broadway in New York by strikes of actors and stagehands fighting for union recognition — action which spread to Chicago and many other cities. These strikes produced violence from the state directly or by corporate hired thugs, leading to many strikers being killed.
The wave of militancy produced hysteria about communism and the threat of Bolshevism. Wrapped up in this frenzy were repeated assertions that immigrants were to blame for un-American activities such as strikes and forming unions. It was also asserted that Jews were known to be centrally involved in the Russian Revolution and Marxist politics. This was a clear attempt to divide a class in which a significant minority were becoming more actively hostile towards the system and were felt to be a threat to its rule.
The KKK was to play a role in this ideological battle against the left and the workers’ movement.
The KKK had been relaunched in 1915 following the release of the shockingly racist film by D W Griffith, Birth of a Nation. This was, at the time of its release, the biggest budget film the world had ever seen and included a number of path-breaking elements in filmmaking. It was released worldwide and President Woodrow Wilson — who arranged a private showing of it at the White House — said of the film, “My only regret is that it’s all so terribly true”.
The “truth”, according to the film, was that the lazy “Negro” was in control. Blacks were portrayed as sexual predators who were a danger to unsuspecting white women. The heroine of the film throws herself off a cliff rather than be molested by a black man chasing after her. The film legitimised and celebrated the history of the KKK, presenting them as the heroes and saviours of the South against the savage Negroes.
The relaunched KKK, while still based on white supremacy, focused much more on anti-Catholic and antisemitic propaganda and explanations for the difficulties the country was facing. It talked about how immigrants from southern and eastern Europe were undercutting wages of domestic labour, while at the same time opposing any attempt by labour to win better wages. It physically attacked strikers in the Alabama miners’ strike in 1920 and in many other disputes. Research has bought to light the Ford Motor Company at the time funding a local group of the KKK which was attacking trade unionists involved in trying to fight for workers’ rights.
The KKK used the concept of women’s rights to attack Jewish people and Catholics in a way reminiscent of the racism directed against Muslims today — racism dressed up in the progressive language of women’s liberation. The KKK organised many parades and marches which could attract tens of thousands of people. It portrayed itself as family friendly and organised picnics, firework displays, baseball tournaments and other cultural events. It tried to some extent to present itself as a patriotic, Protestant cultural organisation, and in some instances denied violence. But its use of intimidation and lynching, while not as prolific as in its previous incarnation, remained part of its imagery, and were on occasions still employed as tactics.
The struggles of workers in 1919 threatened to escalate further and the victory of Russian workers in 1917 made fear of capitalism’s overthrow real and imminent to many of the ruling and middle class. However, the battles in steel, in coal in Seattle, and in the Boston police all went down to terrible defeat and enabled a reactionary response to take hold.
Alongside the strikes of 1919 and growth of union membership, there were huge race riots, most notably in Chicago and Washington DC, alongside more than 30 other cities and towns. These were riots where white mobs attacked black people, burnt them out of their homes, and in many instances murdered them. The scale of these reactionary riots has not been equalled since.
Part of the rhetoric used to stoke up the racism was that black workers were being used to break strikes. In a few cases this was true. But rather than attempt to win on the basis of unity, the working class was successfully divided. Defeat led to pogroms and the growth of a festering racism encouraged by the local business class and state organisations. The seeds were sown for the KKK to gain widespread support for a period in the mid-1920s.
KKK members stood for office on Democrat but increasingly Republican tickets and won many representative roles in this way. They were able to wield some influence on politics. However, where the KKK differed from European fascism is that it never aspired to take over the state. It lacked coherency about its purpose except for vague slogans such as “Protecting Protestant America” and lacked a central leadership to give its members direction. It did not share with the Nazis a strategy of complete annihilation of all forms of democratic representation. During the 1920s, compared to the period of Reconstruction and the later anti Civil Rights period, its use of terrorism was much less evident.
By 1930 its membership had collapsed from a peak of up to 6 million in 1926 to around 30,000 and it continued to fall subsequently. Internal dissent undermined its organisation; scandals of extreme sexual violence including murder by leading Klansmen severely damaged its reputation. It also faced opposition.
Studies of the KKK in this period tend to focus on local areas, but in all of them there are accounts of counter-protests, often involving thousands of people, stopping the KKK from operating and using force in order to drive them back.
In Chicago the American Unity League run by Irishman and radical republican Patrick O’Donnell had a regular paper which printed the names and locations of thousands of KKK members who wished not to be known publicly. The AUL also openly sought to work with Jewish and black organisations in order to defeat the KKK. Identifying KKK business supporters led to mass organised boycotts.
The last wave of the KKK was during the 1950s and 60s in response to the Civil Rights Movement. It was less interested in, and perhaps less able to build, mass membership and operated in a similar way to that of its first period. The methods the new Klan employed were individual acts of violence towards black people and black organisations, most notably the bombing of the church in Birmingham, Alabama, on 15 September 1963, where four young black girls were killed, and the assassination of Medgar Evers, leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
The murder of three Northern state students, two white and one black, in Mississippi in June 1964, was another example of its use of brutal violence to try to intimidate black people and their allies and defend Jim Crow segregation in the South.
The murderous acts of the KKK and local state institutions in the South were met with both the movement led by Martin Luther King and a growing radicalisation in the North epitomised by Malcolm X and later the Black Panthers. The resistance to the terrorism of the KKK and the racist Southern states and their institutions was going beyond non-violence and towards Black Power, which horrified liberals and conservatives.
The history of the KKK is one of murder and terror, but also, in one period, of mass appeal, where racism was successfully weaponised in the context of economic and political crisis and fear of workers’ power. History never simply repeats itself but some of the elements present then are present now. Ensuring the defeat of the far right is as important now as in previous times.