Founded in 1865, as a white supremacist terrorist group that emerged during Reconstruction. The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) extended into almost every southern state by 1870 and became a vehicle for white southern resistance to the Republican Party’s Reconstruction-era policies aimed at establishing political and economic equality for Black Americans. Its members waged an underground campaign of intimidation and violence directed at white and Black Republican leaders. Though Congress passed legislation designed to curb Klan terrorism, the organization saw its primary goal–the reestablishment of white supremacy–fulfilled through Democratic victories in state legislatures across the South in the 1870s. After a period of decline, white Protestant nativist groups revived the Klan in the early 20th century, burning crosses and staging rallies, parades and marches denouncing immigrants, Catholics, Jews, African Americans and organized labor. The civil rights movement of the 1960s also saw a surge of Ku Klux Klan activity, including bombings of Black schools and churches and violence against Black and white activists in the South.
Did you know? At its peak in the 1920s, Klan membership exceeded 4 million people nationwide.
The organization of the Ku Klux Klan coincided with the beginning of the second phase of post-Civil War (Links to an external site.)Reconstruction (Links to an external site.), put into place by the more radical members of the Republican Party in Congress. After rejecting President Andrew Johnson’s relatively lenient Reconstruction policies, in place from 1865 to 1866, Congress passed the Reconstruction Act over the presidential veto. Under its provisions, the South was divided into five military districts, and each state was required to approve the 14th Amendment (Links to an external site.), which granted “equal protection” of the Constitution (Links to an external site.) to former enslaved people and enacted universal male suffrage.
From 1867 onward, African-American participation in public life in the South became one of the most radical aspects of Reconstruction, as Black people won election to southern state governments and even to the U.S. Congress. For its part, the Ku Klux Klan dedicated itself to an underground campaign of violence against Republican leaders and voters (both Black and white) in an effort to reverse the policies of Radical Reconstruction and restore white supremacy in the South. They were joined in this struggle by similar organizations such as the Knights of the White Camelia (launched in Louisiana (Links to an external site.) in 1867) and the White Brotherhood. At least 10 percent of the Black legislators elected during the 1867-1868 constitutional conventions became victims of violence during Reconstruction, including seven who were killed. White Republicans (derided as “carpetbaggers” and “scalawags”) and Black institutions such as schools and churches—symbols of Black autonomy—were also targets for Klan attacks.
The Klan maintained its control since many witnesses were terrified to testify against a Klansman, fearing violent reprisal.
In response, Congress passed the Force Acts of 1870, which required the South to fully recognize the guarantee of equal protection stipulated by the Fourteenth Amendment (Links to an external site.). Since the Force Acts inadequately addressed persistent violence, Congress passed the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 soon thereafter. The Ku Klux Klan Act was the first piece of US legislation that made individuals and states punishable under federal law for hate crimes or disenfranchising citizens on the basis of race. President Ulysses S. Grant used the Act to challenge Klan activity, which was most prevalent in South Carolina.
Yet as Reconstruction came to a close, so did counter-Klan measures. White supremacists gradually reasserted control over the South as the system of Jim Crow (Links to an external site.) segregation took hold. The Klan would experience a huge resurgence in the 1920s (Links to an external site.) with the nativist movement, and another uprising in the 1950s following Brown v. Board of Education (Links to an external site.). At its height in the mid-1920s, the KKK had four million members nationwide dedicated to intimidating, torturing, and killing African Americans and allied activists.
The KKK still exists today.
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