Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow A Century of Segregation
Jim Crow Stories
A National Struggle
Interactive Maps
Tools and Activities
For Teachers


Jim Crow Stories

Introduction People Narratives Events Organizations


Ku Klux Klan Founded: C.1865
From 1869 to 1871 the goal was to destroy Reconstruction by murduring blacks - and some whites - active either in Republican politics or educating black children.

The Ku Klux Klan was formed as a social club by a group of Confederate Army veterans in Pulaski, Tennessee in the winter of 1865-66. The group adopted the name Ku Klux Klan from the Greek word "kyklos," meaning circle, and the English word clan. In the summer of 1867, the Klan became the "Invisible Empire of the South" at a convention in Nashville, Tennessee attended by delegates from former Confederate states. The group was presided over General Nathan Bedford Forrest, who is believed to have been the first Grand Wizard -- the title for the head of the organization.
Lesser officers were given such names as Grand Dragon, Grand Titan, and Grand Cyclops. Dressed in robes and sheets, intended to prevent identification by the occupying federal troops (and supposedly designed to frighten blacks), the Klan quickly became a terrorist organization in service of the Democratic Party and white supremacy. Between 1869 and 1871 its goal was to destroy Congressional Reconstruction by murdering blacks -- and some whites -- who were either active in Republican politics or educating black children. KKK marcher
The Klan burned churches and schools and drove thousands of people out of their homes. Because local law enforcement officials were unable or unwilling to stop the Klan, Congress passed the Force Bill in 1871, giving the federal government the power to prosecute the Klan. Dedicated prosecutors managed to win convictions and break up Klan activity. Although relatively few people were punished, federal action did put an end to most Klan activities. KKK marchers
Masked face
William J. Simmons, a former Methodist preacher, organized a new Klan in Stone Mountain, Georgia in 1915 as a patriotic, Protestant fraternal society. This new Klan directed its activity against not just blacks, but immigrants, Jews, and Roman Catholics. The Ku Klux Klan grew rapidly from there and had more than two million members throughout the country by the mid-1920s. D.W. Griffith's film THE BIRTH OF A NATION, which glorified the Klan and denigrated blacks, was used as a recruiting tool.

Then and Now: KKK membership peaked at four to five million in the mid-1920s; today there are an estimated 5,500 to 6,000 Klan members among roughly 100 groups. Although the Klan still reverted to burning crosses, torturing and murdering those whom they opposed, the organization became a powerful political force in the 1920s. Many state public officials throughout the nation were members. Eventually the organization was weakened by disagreements among the leadership and because of public criticism of Klan violence. By 1944 the Ku Klux Klan had lost most of its influence and membership. It was revived during the Civil Rights era and continues today as a small organization that continues to stage demonstrations in favor of white supremacy and fundamentalist Christian theology.

-- Richard Wormser

Choose Another Organization

Did You Know


On May 22, 2002, former Klansman Bobby Frank Cherry was sentenced to life in prison for the 1963 Alabama church bombing that killed four African-American girls.
Related Pages
Ku Klux Klan

Democratic Party

Republican Party

Reconstruction

print this page
email this page
The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow - home About the Series Pledge Teen Leadership Site Map Resources top