Ku Klux Klan Established

Sunday, December 24, 1865

Nathan Bedford Forrest, Confederate General and the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The "Kuklux Clan" is formed by six Confederate veterans from Pulaski, Tennessee, to resist federal Reconstruction efforts and maintain white supremacy across the South. The name, which is a combination of the Greek word "kyklos," meaning circle, and "clan," soon evolves into the more familiar "Ku Klux Klan." It is one of many other postwar white supremacist groups, but it soon becomes the most notorious. Despite efforts to establish a national organizational hierarchy, and the claim of former General Nathan Bedford Forrest to be the organization's "Grand Wizard" and national leader, the Klan remains highly decentralized and secretive. Masked and robed Klansmen operate in paramilitary groups that intimidate, assault, or assassinate black leaders, Northern white "carpetbaggers," and Southern "scalawags."

At the Klan’s peak, Forrest claims to command 550,000 Klansmen, although there remains no nationwide mechanism of control or even a way to count members. Within two years, even prominent Southern Democrats begin to oppose the Klan, because its extremist and illegal violence provides an impetus for the continued Union military occupation of the South and the federal Freedman's Bureau. By the early-1870s, the Klan's size and influence wanes, and white supremacy is reestablished with segregationist "Jim Crow" laws. After the release of the 1915 film, The Birth of a Nation, directed by D. W. Griffith and portraying the historic Ku Klux Klan in a positive light, the second Klan is founded and grows to be vastly larger and more mainstream than the first. It declined from some 6 million members in the mid-1920s to less than 30,000 members in the 1930s, to virtually non-existent in the 1940s. Today, the Klan still exists, but it probably has fewer than 8,000 members nationwide.

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