November 25, 1915 – Meeting in Georgia to Revive the Disbanded Ku Klux Klan

The first Ku Klux Klan (KKK) was formed in December 1865 in Pulaski, Tennessee by the former Confederate cavalry commander Nathan Bedford Forrest and other ex-confederates. As the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) points out about the South after the Civil War in its history of the KKK:

Their cities, plantations and farms were ruined; they were impoverished and often hungry; there was an occupation army in their midst; and Reconstruction governments threatened to usurp the traditional white ruling authority. In the first few months after the fighting ended, white Southerners had to contend with the losses of life, property and, in their eyes, honor.

. . . .

Freedom for slaves represented for many white Southerners a bitter defeat — a defeat not only of their armies in the field but of their economic and social way of life. It was an age old nightmare come true, for early in Southern life whites in general and plantation owners in particular had begun to view the large number of slaves living among them as a potential threat to their property and their lives.”

The KKK started out making “mischief” for blacks, but their activities quickly turned to violence and even killing. A “Mental Floss” history recounts:

The organization’s first Grand Wizard, the former Confederate cavalry commander Nathan Bedford Forrest, denounced the KKK’s violent methods and ordered it to dissolve in 1869; then in 1871 Congress passed the Ku Klux Act, giving military authorities in the occupied South wide latitude to suppress the secret society.”

The KKK also became less “necessary” in the 1870s as white Southerners had by then retaken control of most Southern state governments, and passed restrictive laws to keep blacks from the polls.

SPLC observed:

The result was an official system of segregation which was the law of the land for more than 80 years. This system was called ‘separate but equal,’ which was half true — everything was separate, but nothing was equal.”

In 1915 the KKK reentered the national spotlight with the release of D.W. Griffith’s blockbuster silent film based on Thomas Dixon Jr.’s novel, “The Birth of a Nation” (originally called “The Clansman”) which stoked racial animosity and glorified the Klan in an innovative cinematic fashion. The movie was the first screened at the White House by Woodrow Wilson, and was also shown to cabinet members, members of Congress, and the Supreme Court.

Dixon claimed it was the “true story” of Reconstruction and the Klan’s role in “saving the South.” Historian John Hope Franklin pointed out at the time that it was full of “inaccuracies and distortions” but rallied Southerners who “wept, yelled, whooped, cheered – and on one occasion even shot up the screen in a valiant effort to save [the white heroine] from her black pursuer.” Thus, he avers, “‘Birth of a Nation’ was the midwife in the rebirth of the most vicious terrorist organization in the history of the United States.” He also astutely observes:

It was not merely that illiterate and unthinking Americans were convinced by Dixon’s propaganda. It was also that vast numbers of white Americans, searching for a rationale for their own predilections and prejudices, seized on Dixon’s propaganda, by his own admission propaganda designed to win sympathy for the Southern cause, and transformed it into history as the gospel truth.” John Hope Franklin, “Birth of Nation”: Propaganda as History,” The Massachusetts Review, Vol. 20, No. 3 (Autumn, 1979), pp. 417-434

One of the fans of the movie was Alabamian William Joseph Simmons, born in 1880. Simmons had failed at medical school and the Methodist ministry. What would come in more handy than a group on whom to blame his troubles? He decided to rebuild the Klan.

Simmons organized a group of friends, in addition to two elderly men who had been members of the original Klan. On this day in history, November 25, 1915, they climbed Stone Mountain to burn a cross and inaugurate the new Klan, with fifteen charter members. Simmons declared himself the Imperial Wizard of the Invisible Empire of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.

Mental Floss writes that while Simmons took great pains to emphasize continuity between the original KKK and the new secret society, his new KKK embraced a range of hatreds beyond the traditional bigotry towards African-Americans: it also set out to counter the influence of various “un-American” groups including immigrants, Jews, and Catholics. The founding members, all recruited by Simmons, were mostly drawn from a group that had earned notoriety in August 1915 for lynching a Jewish man, Leo Frank, wrongly accused of raping Mary Phagan, a white Christian woman.

Simmons insisted that above all, this new KKK was an all-white, all Christian, “patriotic” organization, declaring:

Only native born American citizens who believe in the tenets of the Christian religion and owe no allegiance of any degree or nature to any foreign Government, nation, political institution, sect, people, or person are eligible… We avow the distinction between races of mankind as same has been decreed by the Creator, and we shall ever be true to the faithful maintenance of White Supremacy and will strenuously oppose any compromise thereof in any and all things.”

An Alabama Government history site adds:

Simmons hired publicists . . . , who utilized the latest marketing techniques to garner thousands of new memberships at $10 a head. Texas dentist, Dr. Hiram Wesley Evans, also an Alabama native, displaced Simmons as head of the Klan in 1923 and growth continued at a phenomenal rate until the order claimed between four and six million members nationwide. [Simmons was at the same time elected Emperor for life.] Alabama peaked at about 115,000 members during the mid-1920s, but Chicago was home to 50,000 Klansmen, Indiana was practically controlled by Klan politicians, and the order pushed through an historic public education law in Oregon.”

The Klan started to decline after a peak of membership and influence in 1925, particularly because of the scandal in which one of its top leaders, the Grand Dragon of the Indiana Klan, was convicted of the rape, torture and killing of a woman who had broken up with him.

In addition, the KKK had tax problems, and became tainted for associating with American Nazis in the lead-up to World War II.

As for Simmons, he died in Atlanta on May 18, 1945.

The KKK has never disappeared entirely, however, and recently has gotten a boost with the election of a president in the U.S. who thinks their adherents consist of “good people.” As the SPLC concludes:

History would suggest a continued role for the Klan. For over a century, the Klan has always appeared on the stage whenever white Americans felt threatened by people different than themselves. Even in decline and disarray, the Klan’s message of hatred endures, supported by a record of violence and terror unmatched in the history of American extremist groups.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: