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Breaking the Silence

What's Behind the Wave of Police, Security, and Vigilante Killings of Black People?

The Ku Klux Klan as Vigilantes

The Ku Klux Klan is a White supremacist organization founded in the United States after the Civil War. The KKK has a long history of vigilantism, guerilla warfare, terrorism, and political assassination targeting Black people. It has also attacked Jews, Catholics, and others perceived as subverting an idealized White Protestant America.

The Klan has mobilized in five different historic periods, and has repeatedly split into a number of contentious factions. Sometimes the Klan has maintained close ties to local law enforcement, while at other times it is the focus of law enforcement investigations. The Klan sees itself as a patriotic defense force preserving White rights, law and order, states’ rights, and Protestant Christian values.

Founded in Tennessee around 1886, within a few years, the Klan had spread to Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina, Mississippi, Georgia, Florida, Arkansas, and Texas. In the South, the period after the Civil War was called Reconstruction; this meant not only rebuilding the shattered economic infrastructure, but also reallocating power to former slaves, who ran for and were elected to public office.

In addition to manipulating elections, Whites seeking to marginalize Blacks would refuse to sell them basic farm implements and other supplies, opening the market to peddlers from the North. That some peddlers were Jews lent an anti-Semitic component to the Klan’s list of enemies, which also included the federal government (especially the Freedman’s Bureau), northern Christian missionaries, local educators teaching Blacks to read, and state officials enforcing tax payments and civil rights laws. All transplanted pro-Union Northerners were derogatorily referred to as carpetbaggers (based on the popularity of serviceable fabric-sided luggage), while local Southern supporters of the Union were called scalawags.

The Klan and its allies, who saw themselves as defending the Constitution and local laws against this malicious meddling as well as general post-war chaos and lawlessness, framed their work as the “redemption” of the South. In practice, the Klan became the primary vehicle for organized attempts to re-establish White male dominance and force freed slaves back into social, political, and economic subservience.

The Klan wore hoods and sheets as a disguise, and often rode in groups at night, so they became known as night-riders. Klansmen “threatened, exiled, flogged, mutilated, shot, stabbed, and hanged” Blacks and their allies (Chalmers 1965, 10). York County, South Carolina saw one of the most intense terror campaigns. Starting in November 1870 and running for ten months, the Klan perpetrated “11 murders, more than 600 cases of whipping, beating, and other kinds of aggravated assault,” plus other acts of intimidation, including the burning or destruction of several Black churches and schools (Trelease 1995, 365).

Further Reading:

Berlet, C., & Lyons, M. N. (2000). Right-wing populism in America: Too close for comfort. New York: Guilford Publications.

Blee, K. M. (1991). Women of the Klan: Racism and gender in the 1920s. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Chalmers, D. M. (1965). Hooded Americanism: The first century of the Ku Klux Klan, 1865-1965. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company.

Dixon, T., Jr. (1905). The Clansman: An historical romance of the Ku Klux Klan. New York: Doubleday, Page & Company.

Dobratz, B. A., & Shanks-Meile, S. L. (1997). “White power, White pride!” The White separatist movement in the United States. New York: Twayne Publishers.

Lay, S. (Ed.). (1992). The invisible empire in the west: Toward a new historical appraisal of the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Nelson, J. (1993). Terror in the night: The Klan’s campaign against the Jews. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Ridgeway, J. (1991). Blood in the face: The Ku Klux Klan, Aryan Nations, Nazi skinheads, and the rise of a new White culture. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press.

Trelease, A. W. (1995). White terror: The Ku Klux Klan conspiracy and southern reconstruction. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.

Wade, W. C. (1987). The fiery cross: The Ku Klux Klan in America. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Adapted from Chip Berlet, 2003. “Ku Klux Klan.” Encyclopedia of Religion and War. Gabriel Palner Fernandez, ed. (Berkshire Reference Works; Routledge encyclopedias of religion and society). New York: Routledge.

These resources compiled at the request of the Spirit House Project for a National Teach-In, Worship Service, and Candlelight Vigil
held On April 22, 2014, in Washington, DC

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