The Reemergence of Terror: Ku Klux Klan

KKK March on Pennsylvania Avenue, 1925 | Courtesy of Jon Wiener

Since its origins, the infamous Ku Klux Klan has influenced the attitudes and views of many Americans. The KKK will forever be recognized as the largest political hate group in United States history. Despite the rise and fall of the Klan, it wasn’t until the 1920s that it rose to its highest peak in prominence. During this time period, there was exponential growth in both membership in and support for this notorious cult. The KKK was a growing cult in the 1920s because it instilled religious beliefs, terror, and a skewed view of a better America into the minds of its members through its propaganda of racial superiority.

The original KKK arose during the Reconstruction era of the 1860s and 1870s, and was primarily aimed at restoring the antebellum racial hierarchy to the South. However, it declined in the 1870s due to the passing of legislation aimed at stopping Klansmen’s voter intimidation activities and associated hate crimes. With the end of Reconstruction in 1877, and the passage of Jim Crow laws throughout the South, Klan activity and Klan membership declined. But the cult began a strong resurgence in 1915, with membership skyrocketing to nearly four million by the year 1920.1 This time, the focus of their efforts was aimed at “Americanizing” people by promoting the Constitution, the flag, and the Bible.2 This white supremacist organization lashed out at any group whose ideals conflicted with their own, especially that of African Americans, Catholics, and Jews.

William J. Simmons, KKK’s Second Grand Wizard, 1918 | Courtesy of iOffer

The revival of the Klan was led by its notorious second Grand Wizard (the KKK’s primary leader), William J. Simmons, who was a preacher, a veteran, and an extreme white supremacist.3 He was inspired to reorganize the Klan after watching the silent movie Birth of a Nation, which depicted the Klan as a saving grace, defending the birthright of white southerners and greatly enhancing the public opinion of the cult.4 The religious implications of the KKK stemmed from the teachings of Simmons. Not only were his sermons effective at grasping the hateful minds of Klan members, but he truly convinced them that they were doing the work of God; his credibility led him to a position of power. In fact, one could not join the Klan unless one practiced “militant Christianity,” living in such a way as to be an example to others by following laws, abstaining from drinking, gambling, infidelity, and by not neglecting one’s family. Members were to attend church services regularly, always adhering to the foundations of the Christian faith.5 In addition to this, the KKK burned crosses, often arguing that it was to symbolize the spread of Jesus’ light; it was a symbol aimed to “drive away darkness and gloom.”6 The heavily emphasized morals and negative attitudes toward others are what drove the cult’s frame of thought. Often interpreted in a hateful manner, the religious implications instilled by the KKK’s leaders too often brewed inaccurate thoughts in the minds of its followers; thus, many assumed that the answer to their problem was to commit radical acts of terror.

“Jesus Saves” meeting in a church, 1920 | Courtesy of OldMagazineArticles.com

In addition to their cloaking themselves in the trappings of Christianity, the Klan also used terror tactics to instill fear into both its own members and to those it targeted. The members saw themselves as vigilantes in the restoration of justice—using intimidation, violence, and terror to prevent people of color from attaining any sort of social status or political power. They burned crosses, led beatings, committed assassinations, lynchings, and much more.7 While the symbol of the KKK, the burning cross, held religious connotations for its own members, it was also used as a form of intimidation. They used this symbol of a burning cross to terrorize African Americans.8 In addition to intimidating African Americans, the Klan also targeted Catholics, and had a particularly strong concern with this group due to the fact that they practiced a “different religion” from their own. The motivation for this anti-Catholicism is deeply rooted in American history, going all the way back to colonial times. And with the dramatic increase of Catholics immigrating from Ireland, Italy, and Germany in the nineteenth century, anti-Catholicism was a mainstay throughout American life in the early decades of the twentieth century.9 With the ethnic, social, and racial diversity of American life, tensions continued to heighten among the opposing whites who sought to rid America of these many “outsiders” — a long-held notion in American society. In using both verbal and physical threats, the terror inflicted by the cult caused people to fear the power of the invisible empire that was the KKK.

The idea of creating a better America was yet another reason for the Klan’s rise to prominence in the 1920s. The KKK fought for stricter enforcement of prohibition laws, sought to eliminate political corruption, and wanted to eradicate any form of immigration. Any seemingly “foreign-born” citizen that crossed the path of a klansman was deemed un-American. The Klan assumed they were doing the nation its due diligence in suppressing these “outsiders.” At its peak, the Klan even managed to get political leaders to seek their support and endorsement, since many Americans at this time sympathized with the Klan and its mission.10 And as membership grew, so did their influence. Their opposition to non-whites and to immigration helped to secure the passage of strict quotas on those seeking to come to America.11 The KKK was influential in more ways than one — their power reigning heavily on American society. Even today, white supremacists seek to have their voices heard and their views seen as legitimate. The fight for racial toleration is certainly far from over.

Newspaper clipping of KKK’s second coming, 1916 | Courtesy of Readex

On the other hand, some say that the resurgence of the KKK in the 1920s was due primarily to the effects of industrialization, urbanization, and immigration on society. White Americans became uneasy about immigration and “outsiders” taking American jobs. Many could not stand the idea of “those people” diluting the “racial purity” of American society. But the idea of racial purity is a myth–yet a strong one that many white racists wish to be true. The original soil of America was populated by immigrants and natives alike; whites simply claimed it as their own, as they were to be the guardians of a “city on a hill” and as part of their “manifest destiny” to be the bearers of a supreme culture and society.12 Those that looked to this cult to justify their own beliefs do not parallel with what it means to be an independent individual in American society. The people they were trying to drive out had just as much freedom to be in the United States as they did. Others in support of the Klan also claimed that Simmons was, in fact, preaching for the betterment of society, and that he never resorted to violence to solve problems; though this may seem true, Simmons was actually insinuating his own, twisted version of the word of God, often emphasizing ideas of white supremacy and racial segregation as if that was God’s will. In a pamphlet he wrote in the early nineteenth century, he even states that the primary goal of the organization is to preserve ideals of pure Anglo-Saxon civilization, and many claimed he preached themes of being a pro-American leader by hinting in his sermons that any person in opposition to traditional thought of Anglo supremacy was unwelcome, and simply un-American.13  He silently, yet deviously, instilled discrimination into the Klan’s members. It was even noted that Catholic priests, Protestant ministers, and Jewish rabbis came forward to condemn the organization and its false teachings.14 It seems that the religious implications, terroristic acts, and the skewed ideals used in order to insinuate the making of a better America are contradictory to both the Klan’s mission and the symbols they claimed to uphold.

With a religious basis, the Klan movement emphasized legal and political approaches to solving the “moral crisis” in 1920s America.15 The cult rose to prominence in the 1920s because of their religious, terroristic, and “ideal American” implications; however, their resurgence only served as a detriment. The second coming of the Klan was significant in that it rose to its highest peak in prominence. The KKK’s second coming only continued to fuel the long-held idea of hatred and discrimination that still lingers in the minds of many today.

  1. Khan Academy, 2016, s.v. “The Reemergence of the KKK,” by Dr. Michelle Getchell.
  2. David A. Horowitz, Inside the Klavern: The Secret History of a Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1999), 10.
  3. David A. Horowitz, Inside the Klavern: The Secret History of a Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1999), 11.
  4. Roland G. Fryer, “Hatred and Profits: Under the Hood of the Ku Klux Klan,” Quarterly Journal of Economics 127, no. 4 (November 2012): 12.
  5. Holley Donald, “A Look Behind the Masks: The 1920s Ku Klux Klan in Monticello, Arkansas,” The Arkansas Historical Quarterly no. 2 (2001): 19.
  6. David Cunningham, “Top 5 Questions About the KKK,” PBS, 2013. Accessed March 12, 2018. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/features/klansville-faq/.
  7. Khan Academy, 2016, s.v. “The Reemergence of the KKK,” by Dr. Michelle Getchell.
  8. PBS, 2013, s.v. “Top 5 Questions About the KKK,” by David Cunningham.
  9. Mark Paul Richard, Not a Catholic Nation: The Ku Klux Klan Confronts New England in the 1920s (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2015), 11.
  10. American Decades, 2001, s.v. “After the Great War: Nativism and the Ku Klux Klan,” by Judith S. Baughman, et.al.
  11. Gale Encyclopedia of American Law, 2011, s.v. “Ku Klux Klan,” by Donna Batten.
  12. Khan Academy, 2016, s.v. “The Reemergence of the KKK,” by Dr. Michelle Getchell.
  13. William J. Simmons, “Pamphlet for the Ku Klux Klan Written by Colonel William Joseph Simmons,” Smithsonian, 2017. Accessed April 6, 2018. https://nmaahc.si.edu/object/nmaahc_2011.155.15.
  14. Khan Academy, 2016, s.v. “The Reemergence of the KKK,” by Dr. Michelle Getchell.
  15. Holley Donald, “A Look Behind the Masks: The 1920s Ku Klux Klan in Monticello, Arkansas,” The Arkansas Historical Quarterly no. 2 (2001): 14-15.

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This Post Has 60 Comments

  1. I did not know a lot about the Ku Klux Klan. I did know they were a white supremacist group and that they committed hate crimes that was meant to intimidate African Americans, but I did not know they thought they were considering it to be “God’s Will”. I also did not one of the reasons they burned crosses was to symbolize God’s Light. Overall, this was a very interesting article.

  2. I’m not sure it’s unfortunate to say I did not know much about the KKK before reading this article, but I certainly learned a lot. This author took on a complicated topic matter and presented it well. As I have stated in several articles, it is hard to believe this ever ocurred and is still happening today. I think it is important to understand the history of the KKK, as well as other radical groups, in order to confront those who still participate in them today.

  3. I must admit that the KKK knew exactly how to intimidate and strike fear to everyone around them. It scares me to think how far they were willing to go to spread “god’s word” and make people believe they were being virtuous. I cannot believe that so much hate and violence fueled this clan and the number of deaths they were responsible for. All of this because they truly believed they were the superior race.

  4. I always heard about it but didn’t know as much as I thought. It is unbelievable how 4 million people joined in 1920 just to hear twisted thoughts and hate. It is very sad how these people believed they were making the country a better place by intimidating, assassinating and so on. Especially when they claimed to have strong faith in God while being anti-Catholic. Hateful people who know how to shape ideas to their convenience are very dangerous.

  5. I knew the KKK was a white supremacist organization responsible for horrible acts of hate, but I didn’t realize how powerful they were. I had no idea that they reached 4 million members or that they also targeted Catholics. It is just amazing how a person’s perception of morality can be so different from our own. This was a well-written article and I really liked their images.

  6. This article does a good job on describing the terrible thing the Ku Klux Klan did. It is crazy to think how some of the Ku Klux Klan embers thought that what they were doing was right. I don’t understand how people can have it in the to commit such terrible things. I cannot even imagine the mindset these people must have.

  7. I had never knew the extent of the things the ku klux klan did. They did some pretty heinous things against African Americans. I can’t believe stronger actions weren’t taken to ensure the safety of citizens. I believe the KKK got their ideals from facist thinking like Hitler and other terrible dictators. Hitler was for pro-Ayrians which was the race of blonde hair and blue eyes. I’m glad we’ve come a long ways in dealing with this type of racism.

  8. This article goes in depth about the Ku Klux Klan and their motives. I did not know how prevalent the KKK’s influence was in the early 20th century. The cult is sickening and its values are truly twisted. I could not imagine the mindset of one of the devout followers of this terrible hate group. I can not comprehend how they thought they were doing the work of god or acting in the name of justice.

  9. Any hate group such as the KKK is just morally wrong. I don’t believe in hate, but love and this article sheds light on the pure hatred these people had and still have on anyone else that isn’t pure white. i believe that everyone has a place in America and has a right not to be hated on.

  10. This article does a great job of explaining and putting to words the heinous crimes of the Klu Klux Klan. Originally, I had thought that the Klu Klux Klan just did bad things for the sake of doing it but now that I know some of them genuinely thought that what they were doing was right changes my perspective entirely. I believe that there is a difference in blind following, and true following so the fact that some people had no clue that life is not as one sided as they thought amazes me.

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