Birth and Death of the Klan
When white-sheeted nightriders first appeared in the dark Southern night, many people thought they were ghosts. That was the idea: the souls of those who'd died for a republic of slaveholders had returned from their graves. They were out for vengeance, and they were invisible. They burned houses and churches, stole crops and food, dragged men from their farms and whipped them until they fell, ripped teachers from schoolhouses and branded their foreheads, raped women in front of their children, and shot their husbands at point-blank range. During rampages, they often displayed skeletal hands from beneath their robes, rattled chains, or removed fake heads-all to further the scare of a spectral and invincible force. In daylight, they vanished. The morning after a raid, a victim might come across the man who had torched his barn, the clerk at the mercantile store, and know nothing of his role in the nocturnal horror. But they were not ghosts. The hooded horsemen were part of the unmoored mass of defeated Confederate soldiers, more than half a million men who'd surrendered on the condition that they not "take up arms against the United States." Though conquered, they were free to return home, free to farm and bank and own property, eventually free to vote and hold office. For the most part, traitors were not tried.
In early 1866, six of those rebel veterans met in Pulaski, in Middle Tennessee a few miles north of the Alabama border, to form a secret club. The market town of 2,000 people was named for a Catholic immigrant from Poland who'd fought for the Americans against the British. Before the Civil War, almost half the county was enslaved. Now they walked the streets-freedmen and freedwomen. They attended schools, held worship services, and made plans to vote. President Lincoln had established a Freedmen's Bureau to help people who'd been held in bondage become people with tools to make a living on their own. His generals had offered reparations-forty acres and a mule, carved out of land seized from more than 70,000 slaveholders. But his successor, Andrew Johnson, had overturned the order just a few months after Lincoln was assassinated. The task of peace, as Walt Whitman had prophesied, would be more difficult than the war itself.
Two of the young men gathered in Pulaski had been Confederate officers. Two were lawyers. One was a newspaper editor. One was a cotton broker. They were adrift, bored, and bitter, chafing at new life in the South after four million enslaved people had been freed, and would soon make up 36 percent of the citizen population. The Greek word kuklos, representing a circle, was offered as a name. Klan was an alliterative pairing of the first word, and an echo of the clans to which the Old World ancestors of these Scots-Irish Protestants had belonged. A costume came together: a conical top to make the wearer look much taller, a white mask with cutouts for eyes, a long robe with symbols stitched to it. Silly rituals and silly titles were invented. When the first public parade was held in Pulaski, the original six had expanded to seventy-five masked men marching in the street. The local paper printed a story a week about this mysterious new club. What was the purpose? Brotherhood. Mystery. And power. "The first meeting was purely social," wrote James R. Crowe, one of the original half-dozen. "We would frequently meet after the day's business was over in some room or office. We would have music and songs."
His framing of the founding was a not-so-sly bit of myth-crafting. Before long, the music and song had become arson and whipping. In early 1867, a Tennessee paper reported the rise of "some general and unrefined dread among Negroes of a secret order that has recently made its appearance." And that secret order had spread beyond Pulaski. At a regional convention in Nashville, a prominent Tennessean, Nathan Bedford Forrest, declared himself the first Grand Wizard. As a Confederate general, Forrest was notorious for the Fort Pillow Massacre, the execution of about 150 Black Union soldiers who had thrown down their arms and surrendered. On his orders, they were bayoneted, clubbed to death, and "shot down like dogs," one Confederate soldier wrote. Pardoned by Johnson of the war crime, Forrest had trouble making a living in an economy no longer built on human property. Beady-eyed and bewhiskered, he loathed the idea of the Black race standing on equal terms with whites. "The Negroes were holding night meetings, were going about, were being very insolent," Forrest explained in a congressional hearing. "Ladies were ravished by some of these Negroes."
When the South refused to grant basic rights to the formerly enslaved, the region was put under military control and divided into five districts. Reconstruction of a new society was mandated by Congress and enforced by federal troops. Defiant local governments were replaced by law-abiding ones. But now the Klan had a larger purpose: it turned to terror. The silly rituals and silly titles gave way to insurrection. In Tennessee, they started raiding at night, destroying property, breaking into homes, firing shots. Black people who promoted voting were lashed and burned. White teachers in Black schools were dragged from their homes and ordered to leave. One was pistol-whipped and told that "no damn Yankee bitch should live in this county." In Mississippi, the Klan drove out nearly every teacher in a Black school. At the same time, independent Klan units sprouted in California, where migrants from China were nearly 10 percent of the population. Arsonists burned a Methodist church that had housed a Sunday school for Chinese children. The Klan in San Jose issued a threat to farmers in the southern Bay Area: they would destroy all crops of people who hired a single Asian.
Throughout the South and parts of the West Coast, young Klansmen acted with impunity. Their pamphlets were bold and declarative of their purpose, as one proclaimed: "Unholy blacks, cursed by God, take warning and fly." With confidence came arrogance. By 1868, Forrest boasted of a tide of newborn rebels-40,000 Klansmen in Tennessee, a half million throughout the South, in every province of the former Confederacy. "It's a protective, political, military organization," Forrest told a reporter. When this interview was reprinted in papers around the nation, people were shocked. The North had won the war. The South was winning the peace. And when asked about this assertion, Forrest did not deny it. "If they send the black men to hunt those Confederate soldiers whom they call Kuklux, then I say to you, 'Go out and shoot the Radicals.'"
In July 1866, a white mob backed by police stormed a Black political gathering in New Orleans, stomping men to death, shooting, stabbing, and mutilating others. More than thirty people died and 160 were seriously hurt before federal troops restored order. A similar scene bloodied the streets of Memphis that year-a three-day war that killed forty-six Black people and reduced twelve schools and four churches to ash-heaps. In Arkansas, more than 2,000 African Americans were murdered in the months leading up to the 1868 presidential election. In Lafayette County, Mississippi, thirty Black residents were driven out of their homes and forced to the water's edge, where they were drowned. In the years that followed, people who fished the Yocona River snagged human skulls and bones from the depths.
"The Freedmen are shot and Union men are persecuted if they have the temerity to express their opinion," said General Philip H. Sheridan, whose military district included Louisiana and Texas. A Tennessee authority complained to President Johnson that the Klan rode freely at night, "causing dismay & terror to all-Our civil authorities are powerless."
Johnson was frequently drunk and openly foul-mouthed, a quarrelsome Tennessee Democrat put on the ticket in 1864 by Lincoln as a unity gesture. Just days before he was murdered, Lincoln had become the first president to publicly raise the prospect of full African American citizenship. Johnson, sworn in six weeks after Lincoln began his second term, would have none of his predecessor's vision. He ignored pleas from civil authorities to go after the Klan, and he urged Southern politicians to balk at expanding the Constitution. "Everyone would and must admit that the white race was superior to the Black," he said. He vetoed the Civil Rights Act of 1866, a legislative attempt to extend real power to the formerly enslaved, but was overridden by a strong majority in Congress. "This is a country for white men, and by God, as long as I am president, it shall be a government for white men," he wrote that year. He then announced an amnesty proclamation for ex-Confederates, an unconditional pardon, restoring all rights except property ownership of human beings.
Violence escalated: lynching, arson, beatings, a reign of orchestrated bloodshed for the last three years of Johnson's chaotic term. The exact number of deaths has never been fully established, but one military commander, General John Reynolds, reported from Texas that murders of Black citizens were "so common as to render it impossible to keep an accurate account of them." Sheriffs would not arrest their criminal neighbors. Witnesses were intimidated or murdered. "We can inform you that we are the law itself," was the message delivered from a Klan unit to one teacher in Mississippi.
We are the law itself-the same boast would be heard in Indiana, fifty years later, taking flight through the revelations of Madge Oberholtzer.
Johnson was impeached by the House, acquitted by a single vote in the Senate, then rendered powerless. When the Union general Ulysses S. Grant was elected in 1868, he carried most of the North and a handful of Southern states where large numbers of Black men had been able to vote, thanks to the protection of federal troops. A few months into his presidency, he got a letter from a widow, Sallie Adkins, of Georgia; her spouse, a state senator, had been assassinated on the open road by a Klansman. "I am only a poor woman whose husband has been murdered for his devotion to his country," she wrote the president. Grant promised to smash the Klan. There was nothing gallant or noble about these midnight marauders. The president saw them for what they were: killers in bedsheets who were "trying to reduce the colored people to a condition closely akin to that of slavery," he said.
In Lincoln's final days, he had sought to expand the Constitution. What followed was "a massive experiment in interracial democracy," the historian Eric Foner wrote. In the first lightning strike, the 13th Amendment, slavery was formally outlawed in 1865. In the second, passed after the president was killed, a citizen was defined in the 14th Amendment as anyone born or naturalized in the United States. The 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870, prevented states from denying voting rights based on color. Grant called the last of the three additions "the most important event that has occurred since the nation came to life."
The problem for the general who had won the war was that the Klan was not an organized army with a defined chain of command. Across the South, Klan units would not stand and fight against federal forces. They would not stand at all. They could not be chased across the land or forced to assemble in a defensive posture atop a hill. The enemy was "the most atrocious organization that the civilized part of the world has ever known," Grant's Justice Department declared. After Congress handed him the tools he needed, the president used the Ku Klux Klan Acts to hammer the hooded order. He sent federal authorities, backed by more federal troops, to prosecute what were now federal crimes. He declared martial law in places. He suspended habeas corpus. In the fall of 1869, nearly 2,000 Klansmen were arrested in South Carolina alone. By end of the next year, 3,000 were indicted across the South. A third of them were convicted and sent away with long prison terms. Acknowledging defeat, the Klan formally disbanded under an order from Forrest. He burned all records.
Frederick Douglass had seen the postwar carnage coming. As a manacled young man, he taught himself to read and write, breaking the law and risking the lash, a voracious student of classics, philosophy, and history. As an orator and essayist, he saw his words widely published; by the 1860s, he was the most prominent Black man in America. "The work does not end with the abolition of slavery," he said, not long after Lincoln was shot in the head, "but only begins." When Grant crushed the Klan in the South, Douglass wrote, "The scourging and slaughter of our people have so far ceased."
Copyright © 2023 by Timothy Egan. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.