- Posted February 7, 2013 by
This iReport is part of an assignment:
Was the Ku Klux Klan the Military Force Serving the Democratic Party in 1865 and beyond?
Six well-educated Confederate veterans from Pulaski, Tennessee, created the original Ku Klux Klan on December 24, 1865, during Reconstruction of the South after the Civil War. The name was formed by combining the Greek kyklos (κύκλος, circle) with clan. The group was known for a short time as the “Kuklux Clan.” The Ku Klux Klan was one among a number of secret, oath-bound organizations using violence, including the Southern Cross in New Orleans (1865) and the Knights of the White Camelia (1867) in Louisiana.
Historians generally see the KKK as part of the post Civil War insurgent violence related not only to the high number of veterans in the population, but also to their effort to control the dramatically changed social situation by using extrajudicial means to restore white supremacy. In 1866, Mississippi Governor William L. Sharkey reported that disorder, lack of control and lawlessness were widespread; in some states armed bands of Confederate soldiers roamed at will. The Klan used public violence against blacks as intimidation. They burned houses, and attacked and killed blacks, leaving their bodies on the roads.
At an 1867 meeting in Nashville, Tennessee, Klan members gathered to try to create a hierarchical organization with local chapters eventually reporting up to a national headquarters. Since most of the Klan’s members were veterans, they were used to the hierarchical structure of the organization, but the Klan never operated under this centralized structure. Local chapters and bands were highly independent.
Former Confederate Brigadier General George Gordon developed the Prescript, or Klan dogma. The Prescript suggested elements of white supremacist belief. For instance, an applicant should be asked if he was in favor of “a white man’s government”, “the reenfranchisement and emancipation of the white men of the South, and the restitution of the Southern people to all their rights.” The latter is a reference to the Ironclad Oath, which stripped the vote from white persons who refused to swear that they had not borne arms against the Union. Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest became Grand Wizard, claiming to be the Klan’s national leader.
In an 1868 newspaper interview, Forrest stated that the Klan’s primary opposition was to the Loyal Leagues, Republican state governments, people like Tennessee governor Brownlow and other carpetbaggers and scalawags. He argued that many southerners believed that blacks were voting for the Republican Party because they were being hoodwinked by the Loyal Leagues. One Alabama newspaper editor declared “The League is nothing more than a nigger Ku Klux Klan.”
Despite Gordon’s and Forrest’s work, local Klan units never accepted the Prescript and continued to operate autonomously. There were never hierarchical levels or state headquarters. Klan members used violence to settle old feuds and local grudges, as they worked to restore white dominance in the disrupted postwar society. The historian Elaine Frantz Parsons describes the membership:
Lifting the Klan mask revealed a chaotic multitude of antiblack vigilante groups, disgruntled poor white farmers, wartime guerrilla bands, displaced Democratic politicians, illegal whiskey distillers, coercive moral reformers, sadists, rapists, white workmen fearful of black competition, employers trying to enforce labor discipline, common thieves, neighbors with decades-old grudges, and even a few freedmen and white Republicans who allied with Democratic whites or had criminal agendas of their own. Indeed, all they had in common, besides being overwhelmingly white, southern, and Democratic, was that they called themselves, or were called, Klansmen.
Historian Eric Foner observed:
In effect, the Klan was a military force serving the interests of the Democratic party, the planter class, and all those who desired restoration of white supremacy. Its purposes were political, but political in the broadest sense, for it sought to affect power relations, both public and private, throughout Southern society. It aimed to reverse the interlocking changes sweeping over the South during Reconstruction: to destroy the Republican party’s infrastructure, undermine the Reconstruction state, reestablish control of the black labor force, and restore racial subordination in every aspect of Southern life.
To that end they worked to curb the education, economic advancement, voting rights, and right to keep and bear arms of blacks. The Ku Klux Klan soon spread into nearly every southern state, launching a “reign of terror against Republican leaders both black and white. Those political leaders assassinated during the campaign included Arkansas Congressman James M. Hinds, three members of the South Carolina legislature, and several men who served in constitutional conventions.”