Native History: Ku Klux Klan Formed as a Secret Fraternity in Tennessee
This Date in Native History: On December 24, 1865, a group of confederate Civil War veterans formed the Ku Klux Klan in Pulaski, Tennessee.
The KKK began six months after the war ended as a secret fraternity, but it rapidly grew into a paramilitary force that aimed to reverse the federal government’s progress in elevating the rights of African Americans. The group employed violence as a means of enforcing white racial superiority and was recognizable by hooded costumes that hid members’ identities.
“Confederate veterans formed a little group with no ideological connection at first, but quickly they started to go around and pull little pranks—malicious pranks—against African Americans,” said Mark Pitcavage, director of investigative research for the Anti-Defamation League, the nation’s top agency for defending civil and human rights. “This started them on the ball to develop ideology of opposing reconstitution and black civil rights, essentially leading an insurrection to try to reinstitute conservative white rule in the former confederate states.”
Klan members burned down hundreds of schools and churches and killed thousands of people—often by lynching or burning—earning it the label as the worse domestic terrorist group the United States has ever had, Pitcavage said. The KKK is still considered a hate group by the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center.
The original group disbanded by the mid-1870s when it gained control of many of the state governments, Pitcavage said. It experienced two revivals—one in response to the influx of Eastern European immigrants during the early part of the 20th century, and again in response to the Civil Rights era of the 1950s and 60s.
During the first revival, the KKK gained mainstream popularity and was millions of members strong, Pitcavage said. By the second revival, it was less cohesive and different communities of members targeted different minority groups. Still a white supremacist group, the different bands tried unsuccessfully to fight against equal rights.
Although often considered a force against African Americans, members of the KKK also have targeted American Indians. One of the most vivid examples came in the 1958 incident known as the Battle of Hayes Pond, in Robeson County, North Carolina.
Indians with guns raid a Klan gathering near Maxton.
In the years following the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which called for the desegregation of public schools, the KKK presence increased in North Carolina. On the night of January 13, 1958, the Klan burned crosses on the front lawns of two Lumbee families who recently moved into a predominantly white neighborhood.
According to news reports from 1958, Robeson County’s population was tri-racial, with 40,000 whites, 30,000 American Indians and 25,000 African Americans. Each group operated a separate school system.
The KKK, led by James W. “Catfish” Cole, scheduled a rally for the night of January 18, 1958, to “put the Indians in their place, to end race mixing.” About 100 Klan members gathered under the light of a single bulb, but they quickly were surrounded by as many as 1,000 Lumbees, who shot the light bulb and fired guns into the air. The Klan scattered and never again held a public meeting in Robeson County.
Don Cravens/Life magazine
James W. “Catfish” Cole stuffing envelopes with flyers concerning a Ku Klux Klan rally in Maxton, North Carolina.
“Basically, the Klan got its ass kicked,” Pitcavage said. “That is a more common occurrence now. When a white supremacist group has a public rally, they’re almost always surrounded or confronted by much larger numbers of anti-racist activists, sometimes as many as 10 or 20 times outnumbered. This was an early example of that.”
Although a single, unified KKK has not existed since the 1940s, an estimated 40 separate groups still operate, with a combined membership of about 4,000 people, Pitcavage said. None of the groups has a nationwide presence.
Klan groups now are characterized as “trying to continue on despite losing the civil rights battle,” Pitcavage said. It is one of many white supremacist groups, which tend to have the greatest presence in the South and Midwest.
Such groups mainly target people who are African American, Jewish or gay, but close proximity to American Indians can lead to similar incidents of discrimination, Pitcavage said. This can be especially true in towns bordering large Indian reservations.
“Because they actually see these people, they don’t think in abstract terms and they’re more likely to engage their racist attitudes,” he said. “They are more visceral in their hatred when they are in close proximity to Native Americans.”
Another common practice among white supremacist groups is treating American Indians like “object lessons,” Pitcavage said.
“A dominant theme among white supremacists is the notion that the white race is doomed to extinction,” he said. “If white supremacists don’t do something about it, they will become extinct. They say ‘look what happened to Native Americans—they became extinct. We can’t let that happen to white people.’”