The Invisible Empire: The History of the KKK and Why People Joined

The Invisible Empire

Klan members arrested for attempted murder of a family in Mississippi. 1871.

Klan members arrested for attempted murder of a family in Mississippi. 1871.

The Origins of the KKK

The Ku Klux Klan was formed by a group of Confederate soldiers after their defeat in the Civil War. The name derives from the Greek word “kuklos,” meaning “circle." It was organized in 1865-66 in Tennessee by six men as a social, fraternal organization. Originally, it was not meant to be a hate group. As the Klan grew, its ideologies began to shift. Its members were bitter about the disenfranchisement of the South in the Reconstruction Era. Its members saw enemies in the freed blacks, their allies, and the Republican opposition.

Bitterness, stewing in an insular, secret society, transformed the small fraternal organization into something far more dangerous. The Ku Klux Klan became a secret vigilante group. They threatened and enacted violence on their perceived enemies. They advocated for white supremacy, intimidated black voters, and attempted to suppress their votes. They escalated from harassment to arson and murder over a period of five years.

From 1866 through 1871, men calling themselves ‘Ku-Klux’ killed hundreds of black Southerners and their white supporters, sexually molested hundreds of black women and men, drove thousands of black families from their homes and thousands of black men and women from their employment, and appropriated land, crops, guns, livestock, and food from black Southerners on a massive scale.
— Elaine Frantz Parsons in Ku-Klux: The Birth of the Klan During Reconstruction.

Before the turn of the 20th century, the movement had largely died off.

Poster for D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation. 1915.

Poster for D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation. 1915.

The Second Wave

The KKK experienced a revitalization credited to the film Birth of a Nation by D. W. Griffith. The film was a cinematic masterpiece as far as technique. But the narrative of black men as uncontrollable savages was toxic to a culture already racially divided. This movie ignited an already-fearful nation. Waves of immigration, particularly from Catholic countries, instilled a sense of fear and nationalism in the American subconscious.

The second wave of the KKK began in Stone Mountain, Georgia by William J. Simmons. In addition to their Anti-Black ideology, they extended their new society to Anti-Semitism, Anti-Catholicism, and Anti-Immigration. Cross-burning was then, and still is, a sacred ceremony in the Klan. The Klan does not view this as sacrilegious. The Klan’s identity is steeped in the Protestant religion. Its members believe the act of burning the cross is a symbol of their Christianity. This imagery has become synonymous with the Klan as an intimidation tactic against “enemies.”

Events of the early 20th century only created a better environment in which the Klan could thrive. The Bolshevik Revolution in Russia in 1917 created fears of communism. Prohibition and the Temperance Movement received strong Klan support.

Klan Parade in Washington D.C. 1926.

Klan Parade in Washington D.C. 1926.

In the 1920s, Klan membership was around 4 million nationwide. For a portion of the Klan, it was a fraternal lodge with political power. They viewed it as a social group that could act as a charity. They had social gatherings and helped support local churches and baseball teams. In this way, it was not much different than the Free Masons. However, there was still a violent segment of the KKK. And there was always an underpinning of white supremacy within the organization.

Cleveland had two Klaverns: #12 and #88, both established in 1922. They were the first Klaverns in the area. Chattanooga would get its first Klavern in 1923. 

Eventually, the Great Depression and World War II diminished the Klan’s membership. The organization was disbanded in 1944.

Violence at a Klan march in Mobile, Alabama. 1977.

Violence at a Klan march in Mobile, Alabama. 1977.

The Third Wave

The Civil Rights Movement in the ‘50s and ‘60s incited another wave of the KKK. The KKK made it a priority to fight desegregation through intimidation of civil rights activists. They made attempts to stop civil rights demonstrations when possible. During the Civil Rights Movement, membership in the KKK grew to about 40,000.

In Cleveland, TN, Bob Jones University refused blacks admission in the university until 1971. (It was in Cleveland from 1933-1947 and had no black students for the duration.) It also banned interracial dating until March 1, 2000. Bob Jones Sr. was an ally of the Klan, though there are no records that he was part of the Klan itself.

On the other hand, Billy Graham, who had attended Bob Jones College for one semester, was pro-desegregation. At a 1953 rally in Chattanooga, he tore down the ropes that segregated the audience, stating: “We have been proud and thought we were better than any other race, any other people. Ladies and gentlemen, we are going to stumble into hell because of our pride.” Graham, a friend of MLK, also said, “there is no scriptural basis for segregation. The ground at the foot of the cross is level, and it touches my heart when I see whites standing shoulder to shoulder with blacks at the cross.”

The KKK began to fade from the public consciousness again, though it still existed. In 1980, three KKK members opened fire on five black women in Chattanooga. The women survived. But an all-white jury acquitted the KKK members of any wrongdoing, which incited riots in Chattanooga. The women filed a civil lawsuit and were awarded $535,000 from the Klan by federal courts. This outcome spurred legal action against the Klan with the goal of dismantling it.


Multiple outlets say that white supremacy and hate crimes are on the rise. At the very least, white supremacist groups are becoming more apparent in our public consciousness. The KKK supported Donald Trump for president. White supremacists have, as they did during the second wave of the KKK, gotten a foothold in mainstream American politics.

There are no Klaverns in Cleveland, TN according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. However, there are between 5,000-8,000 Klan members nationwide. The modern Klan, while taking on new targets such as homosexuals, have backed down on its attacks against Catholics.

So, why did/do people join the Klan?

The reasons might not be exactly what you think and it largely depends on the time period.

During the First Wave, it was a place of camaraderie for the defeated Confederate veterans. It was not only an outlet for their anger surrounding their defeat, but it provided an opportunity to pursue their ideologies. Their government had now implemented laws interfering with the men’s individual liberty to pursue and enforce their beliefs. (Which was the belief that their liberty was superior to the liberties of others). They were unable to make changes in the law, so they funneled their frustrations into violence against those they saw as causing their anger.

In the South, it was largely believed that white supremacy and slavery were divine rights. Human government was (allegedly) interfering with the will of God. These men rarely saw anything wrong with slavery and held the belief that black people were lesser. Therefore, enacting violence on blacks or those who supported them was not a crime. Not in God’s eyes. (This was their belief, not truth or the beliefs of this author.)

Sheet music for We Are All Loyal Klansmen.

Sheet music for We Are All Loyal Klansmen.

During the Second Wave, the KKK was a group that was seen as fighting injustices against the American people. It became strongly nationalist (as many hate groups do, including the Nazi party in Germany, but that is a blog post for another day). The Klan felt immigrants and anyone not of WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) heritage was the underlying cause of America’s problems.

But the KKK was more insidious during the second wave, rebranding itself in a more mainstream and palatable way. They did charity work, organized parades, and had social events where they invited the white community. Klan members began taking political and government positions and wielded significant power in Southern communities and nationwide. Many men joined to gain the support of the powerful Klan when they wanted to pursue office.

Women began to join at this time as well, as the Klan supported Prohibition, a female-supported cause. (Alcohol was viewed, at this time, as a source of much of the domestic violence and rape that occurred.) The Klan also promised to protect the sanctity of white womanhood.

Since its inception, violent Klan activities have been blamed on the poor, on the rural segments, on the uneducated people involved in the group. Often, upstanding members of society who were also Klan members used this to absolve themselves of any associations with the violent movements. However, this was not shown to be the case. 

Indiana’s Klansmen represented a wide cross section of society: they were not disproportionately urban or rural, nor were they significantly more or less likely than other members of society to be from the working class, middle class, or professional ranks. Klansmen were Protestants, of course, but they cannot be described exclusively or even predominantly as fundamentalists. In reality, their religious affiliations mirrored the whole of white Protestant society, including those who did not belong to any church
— Leonard J. Moore in Historical Interpretations of 1920s Klan: The Traditional View and the Populist Revision

Today, advances in the field of psychology and the shift in perception of white supremacy as abnormal has led to a better understanding of why people today choose to join groups such as the Klan. One small scale survey says a group of people who identify as alt-right (which hold white supremacist ideologies) has higher instances of narcissism and authoritarianism. Economic disenfranchisement has often been cited as a reason behind this movement. However, the same survey found no difference between the control group and the alt-right group when it came to social isolation or concern about the economy.

Current white supremacists rely on victimhood to draw others into their cause. White supremacists claim: 1) whites are victims of discrimination; 2) whites are denied the ability to form whites-only groups, unlike minorities; 3) whites are stigmatized if they show pride in their heritage as they are taught to hate themselves and white history, while minorities are told to have pride in theirs; 4) whites are experiencing a loss of self esteem due to the previous; 5) the white race is in danger of becoming extinct.

If you are white and some of this hits home in a way that makes you uncomfortable, you are not alone.

  1. 55% of whites believe discrimination against whites exists. Here are a few charts to get you started on understanding, at the very least, that discrimination against blacks is more significant than discrimination against whites. We can see with our own eyes that discrimination against blacks is worse than against whites. Racial violence is usually enacted against minorities, not whites. There are 24x more hate groups against people of color than whites in Tennessee. (The Black Nationalist Nation of Islam being the only anti-white group in Tennessee. Once again, refer to the SPLC site.)

  2. It is true that it is looked down upon to form groups on the basis of whiteness. But feminist groups, LGBT groups, and racial minority groups (such as the NAACP) welcome majority members. They are not exclusionary. These groups were formed to help combat significant forms of discrimination and help attain their civil rights. This is something that majority members have not had to do. Whereas white groups have a history of hate and violence. Whites-only groups were formed as a means to combat the civil rights of others. It is also true that whites-only groups exist without needing to dictate it as such. There are all-white churches, all-white groups surrounding hobbies and activities, and all-white advocacy groups. None of which are designated as such. Or intentionally made as such. But it simply happens when in a white-majority country. Minority groups must have intentionality when they want to form a group of others of the same minority.

  3. This one is the toughest, I think, because white guilt is very real. Whites tend to feel guilty about the actions of their race throughout history. It is very easy to grow resentful that you must shoulder the burden of a history you had nothing to do with. But it is also a burden people of color must bear as well. The actions of their ancestors and the actions taken against their ancestors has just as much of an effect on them. It isn’t hard to wonder why whites today must feel guilty for being on the receiving end of advantages their ancestors had drawn for them. And why they must feel guilty for all the bad things done on behalf of their race. On this topic, I feel it is very important to remember three very important things:

    1. We can and do celebrate white heritage in this country. It is usually celebrated as a national heritage e.g. Irish pride, Italian pride, German pride, etc. (Although German pride can be a touchy topic due to World War II.) For blacks in America, many of them don’t know their country of origin due to the Atlantic slave trade and can only celebrate African-American pride in general. (This is improving with widely-available genetic testing.)

    2. History has affected today and we must remember that, but it is not necessary to feel secondhand guilt. It is only necessary that history is remembered to make for a better future. Recognize the mistakes of the past and the advantages or disadvantages you may have because of them. If you have advantages, use them to help those that are disadvantaged from history.

    3. As they say in High School Musical: we’re all in this together. And we are all products of our history. The person next to you is just as much affected by it as you are.

  4. Self-esteem should not be drawn from textbooks. If you hinge your self-esteem on a history of colonialism, slavery, racism, and hate, it’s time to grow up. If your only source of pride is your race, it means you’re a bad person. Do something useful and help Habitat for Humanity and give yourself something to actually build your self-esteem on.

  5. Race is a human concept and not a real thing, for one. But that’s a very big topic to tackle on this already-lengthy blog post. Second, all “races” are going to become extinct as everyone mixes. If that scares you, it’s not going to happen in your lifetime, so don’t worry about it. It’s not going to erase history. It will just give children of the future multiple histories.