KU KLUX KLAN The Ku Klux Klan was a secret terrorist society established by dissident southerners during the Reconstruction period after the American Civil War. Characterized by the ritualistic donning of white cloaks and masks, secret meetings and the burning of crosses, the Klan or KKK was organized in opposition to northern attempts to protect the recently won political rights of black Americans.
In particular, the Klan was opposed to the Union League of America, an organization of Republican "carpetbaggers" and other sympathizers whose primary goal was to ensure that black freedmen exercised the suffrage by voting the right way (i.e., Republican). Members of the Union League, which itself was a ritualistic lodge-type society, "reminded" the ex-slaves that their freedom was the result of administrative action taken by a Republican president. Accordingly, they were "persuaded" to vote Republican. This persuasion, at times, merely meant that members of the League would march large groups of blacks to the polls (protected by federal troops) to register and vote Republican en masse. To combat these activities, the Ku Klux Klan undertook a massive campaign of terror and intimidation against blacks who attempted to exercise their right to vote. Recalcitrant blacks and their families, of course, were at the mercy of the Klan. Lynchings, beatings and arson were among the weapons in the Klan's "arsenal" used against those African Americans who attempted to exercise their constitutional voting rights.
With few exceptions, the membership of the Klan was composed of riffraff and poor whites. Others in the South, according to historian John A. Garraty, "accepted the tactics of the Union League as politically necessary and were repelled by the violence and underhandedness of the night riders." This fact, coupled with relatively effective federal legislation to protect black voters (the Force Acts of 1870 and the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871), led to the ultimate decline of Klan influence. By 1872, the Ku Klux Klan (and other terrorist organizations such as the Pale Faces and the Knights of the White Camelia) had nearly disappeared.
The Klan remained dormant until 1915. In that year it was more or less resurrected as an organization dedicated to the goals of white supremacy. Once again, blacks were intimidated and terrorized. But by 1920, the Klan had broadened its perspective by launching a crusade for 100% Americanism. In other words, the "new" Klan, having a strong foothold in the Midwest as well as in the South, undertook a program which, in essence, advocated the "purification" of the United States by the removal (via terror and intimidation) of "non-Americans." By "non-Americans," the Klan referred not only to blacks, but also to Jews and, in particular, Roman Catholics. The "new" Klan remained active throughout the 1920's, reaching its peak in 1923 with over five million "card-carrying" members. As the result of internal scandals and factionalism, however, the membership of the Klan had dwindled to less than 10,000 by 1930 and, although the organization still exists, it has not been able to regain its previous position of influence. See also: BLACK REPUBLICAN RECONSTRUCTION and CARPETBAGGERS.