Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

The Birmingham Church Bombing: Bombingham

The Klan

The Civil War, whose passions and consequences extended far into subsequent generations, was firmly embedded into the psychology and culture of the Deep South. After the fighting was over, racial segregation became a way of life in parts of Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and other southern states. There were some people who wanted things to remain as they were, especially those of the older generations who still remembered tales of the "old South" from their fathers and grandfathers. Bitterness dies hard and the hatreds left over from the Civil War festered like an open wound in many southern communities. During the war years, homes were burned, lives were ruined and fortunes were lost. Families, who lived and prospered on the same land for generations, found themselves homeless and financially destitute. For this ravaged landscape and a future that seemed just as dismal, many people blamed the freed slaves. And no group helped perpetuate those obsessive hatreds like the Ku Klux Klan, sometimes called the "Invisible Empire."

Nathan Bedford Forest
Nathan Bedford Forest

Six ex-Confederate soldiers, who were bored with post-war life in Tennessee, founded the Klan in 1866. In a city with the odd name of Pulaski, these soldiers, some of whom were college-educated, got together and rode through the Lawrence County hills covered with white bed sheets. They named their club the Ku Klux Klan, a variation of the Greek word for circle, kuklos. Originally, these night rides were a source of mischief and fun. But superstitious blacks, recently freed from slavery, believed the pranksters were ghosts of dead Confederate soldiers returning for revenge. When the riders saw the terror they caused, they began to harass and intimidate local blacks living in western Tennessee and northern Alabama. This harassment quickly turned into violence. An ex-Confederate Army General, named Nathan Forrest, brought his talent for organization to the group and soon, the ranks of the Klan grew. Fueled by young, unemployed whites, resentful of the war and eager to strike out at freed slaves, the Klan became more aggressive. They broke into the homes of blacks and confiscated weapons, raided church services and stole livestock.

Under the leadership of the charismatic General Forrest, the Klan marched openly through city streets, dressed in flowing white robes and hoods. At the same time, they became a covert organization whose membership was a closely guarded secret. Members spread the word that the Ku Klux Klan was fighting for the honor of the South. Everywhere, blacks became the target of fearsome night raids in which homes were torched and the occupants either killed or driven from their land. Within a few years, the Klan became a veritable army. They controlled vast tracts of territory and in some counties, they were the only "law" in existence. In South Carolina, the situation grew so urgent that the governor asked President Andrew Johnson for troops to seize control of the state from the Ku Klux Klan.

In Alabama, the "Invisible Empire" permeated every level of governmental authority. Since no one knew exactly who was involved and who wasn't, no one could be trusted. Members included politicians, judges, police, clerks and shopkeepers. The Klan's reign of terror continued almost unabated, for even when they were caught in the act of murder, it was nearly impossible to get a conviction. That's because it was just as likely that jury members and witnesses were part of the Klan family. Targets of the Klan were usually blacks, but whites who showed sympathy toward blacks were attacked with special enthusiasm. Teachers in black schools were systematically murdered and their homes burned to the ground. Anyone who stood in the way of Klan "justice" was cut down or simply disappeared.

Ku Klux Klan's 1920 march in D.C.
Ku Klux Klan's 1920 march in D.C.

Throughout the 1920s, the KKK enjoyed its "golden era" and boasted publicly of a membership in the millions. In 1928, the Ku Klux Klan, in all their hooded regalia, paraded down Pennsylvania Avenue in the symbolic shadow of the nation's Capital building. They were at the zenith of their power. Author Wyn Craig Wade, in his book on the history of the Klan, "The Fiery Cross," writes, "the Klan helped elect sixteen men to the U.S. Senate (nine Republicans and seven Democrats) eleven Governors (six Republicans, five Democrats) and an unknown number of Congressman." Hiding behind the mask of legitimacy and pretending to fly the banner of patriotism, the KKK had seduced many innocent people into its ranks. Even President Harry S. Truman was once a member (he resigned after attending one meeting). So was Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black and President Warren Harding who once issued free passes to Klan friends that allowed them to drive through red lights anywhere in America.

Book cover: The Fiery Cross
Book cover: The Fiery Cross

It was difficult to find a village, town or city in the South that didn't have KKK in its midst. In Alabama, the problem was incalculable.

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