Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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The Ku Klux Klan was born in 1866 amidst the travails of the Confederate loss in the Civil War. Begun as a society club designed to relieve boredom for former Confederate soldiers, it later blossomed into a vigilante group when it was led by General Nathan Forrest the very next year. Retaining the ghoulish costumes donned by its founders, Forrest ushered in a constitution. Within two years, he abolished the organization after it spawned a rash of atrocities so great that President Grant threatened to use government invention to stop it.

Demographic studies have shown that two of the prominent professions in the Klan were Protestant minister and police officer. In the original Organization and Principles of the Klan (1868, written by General Forrest), the "Creed" praised the "majesty and supremacy of the Divine Being and recognize[d] the goodness and providence of the same." The "Character and Objects of the Order" also focused heavily on the need to protect the weak and innocent as well as uphold the law.

Since its creation, the Klan has waxed and waned in strength, thriving during times of anxiety and social prejudice. Initially it fed on southern fears of the Republican Party. Klan members sought to frighten newly enfranchised blacks from extending their support to Republicans. Later, during the 1910s and 1920s, the Klan also vilified Catholics, Jews, and immigrants. It experienced sudden popularity after the release of D. W. Griffith's pro-Klan film, Birth of a Nation (1915). By the 1920s, the Klan had millions of supporters, including members of Congress. The Depression and American postwar prosperity lessened its ranks, yet the civil rights movement of the 1960s brought new converts.

Recently, the Klan has suffered fragmentation. Members have joined neo-Nazi groups, such as the Aryan Nations. Even leader David Duke could not unify the Klan in the 1970s, when he broke off contact to start his own organization. The Klan was largely separate from Nazi groups from the 1930s through the 1950s. It also opposed such natural allies as the anti-Semitic Father Coughlin (1938-1942 being his most radical period) on the basis that his organization (the "Christian Front") was Catholic. Major connections between the Klan and neo-Nazi groups did not come about until the 1970s, when organizations such as the Aryan Nations and WAR (White Aryan Resistance) began to make inroads into Klan territory. This was due in part to increasingly similar enemy figures between the two groups, dwindling membership on the part of the Klan (which created a need for such mergers), and advancements in telecommunication that made loose connections between organizations easier and more profitable. Thus, while white supremacy continues to rise, the Klan is no longer at its center; nonetheless, its presence persists.

Susan Zickmund


Annals of America , Vol. 14 (Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, 1968)

W. L. Katz, The Invisible Empire (Seattle: Open Hand, 1986)

M. Newton and J. A. Newton (eds.), The Ku Klux Klan: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland, 1991)

J. Ridgeway, Blood in the Face (New York: Thunder's Mouth Press, 1992)

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