Ku Klux Klan During Reconstruction: History & Explanation

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  • 0:01 The Ku Klux Klan Now and Then
  • 0:48 Characteristics of the…
  • 1:50 Actions of the Ku Klux Klan
  • 3:03 Sympathetic…
  • 3:57 Federal Intervention
  • 5:07 Demise of the Ku Klux Klan
  • 6:01 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Adam Richards

Adam has a master's degree in history.

The history of violence in United States extends back to the beginning of the nation. Learn how the Ku Klux Klan contributed to the history of violence in America during the Reconstruction era, 1863-1877.

The Ku Klux Klan Now and Then

Individuals typically assume that the Ku Klux Klan present in modern-day American society is the same group that spread violence throughout the South during the Reconstruction era. This is an understandable mistake due to the general unwillingness of America to highlight this organization. However, it is important for you to know that the Ku Klux Klan of the Reconstruction period only lasted into the mid-1870s. Additionally, to set the two periods apart, the original Ku Klux Klan wore simple masks to avoid being identified and to invoke fear. The second Klan, re-born in 1915, adopted the symbolic white robes and masks. While the first Ku Klux Klan did not survive long, its reign of terror was felt throughout the South.

Characteristics of the Ku Klux Klan

The original Ku Klux Klan began near the end of the American Civil War in 1865. This Klan was created by a small group of former Confederate soldiers and operated throughout the Reconstruction era (1863-1877). This secret organization was composed of and supported largely by Democratic ex-Confederate veterans, poor white farmers, and white Southerners sympathetic to white supremacy. Unlike previous Southern terror groups, the Ku Klux Klan was an organized entity that spread fear and violence in a systematic manner.

That system represented a militant-politico force that sought to influence power relations, which included destroying the Republican Party's infrastructure, ending Reconstruction, controlling the Southern black populace, and reinstating the ideology of white supremacy in the South. Members of the Ku Klux Klan were able to spread fear throughout the South by engaging in guerrilla tactics, such as whippings, beatings, arson and, worst of all, lynchings.

Actions of the Ku Klux Klan

The primary goal of the Klan was to destroy the Republican Party as revenge for the abolition of slavery and for having a hand in the federal occupation and restructuring of the South. This was achieved by harassing and, if necessary, murdering registered Republican voters. Political murders by the Klan numbered in the thousands, many of the victims being black. Klan members often murdered black political leaders, heads of black religious institutions and any other black individual who had ties to a political organization.

Aside from targeting political entities, the Ku Klux Klan destroyed black institutions throughout the South. The group set fire to churches, schools, and Freedmen Bureau posts, often with individuals still inside the buildings. In Monroe County, Mississippi, in 1871, the Klan destroyed 26 schools. The Klan attempted to drive black farmers off of what was considered 'white man's land' through crop destruction and arson. Documented incidents in South Carolina showed that free blacks were driven off of their farms and into swamps. Additionally, the organization carried out systematic executions of black Southerners who attempted to vote.

Sympathetic Southerners Fight Back

Not all of Southern society believed that blacks were a threat to Southern institutions. Moreover, many believed that Reconstruction was necessary for the successful rebuilding of the South. These individuals, comprised of white and black, decided to combat the rampant violence of the Ku Klux Klan by forming Republican-sponsored militias.

Unfortunately, many of these militias were outnumbered and under-supplied. It is key for you to remember that many members of the Ku Klux Klan were former Confederate soldiers who were trained in guerrilla tactics, and therefore, combat was often lopsided. Massacres in Jackson County, Florida, in 1871, and in Colfax, Louisiana, in 1873, are primary examples. Recorded murders in Jackson County reached 150, while the death toll in Colfax reached over 100 lives, including 3 whites.

Federal Intervention

Like so often during the post-Civil War Reconstruction period, the federal government was forced to intervene in the South to maintain a semblance of control. It is important for you to note that the Ku Klux Klan was not necessarily a powerful organization. Instead, the Klan's consistent violence and murder, its overt attempts at undermining federal reconstruction efforts, and the pleas of Republican governors for assistance placed the organization on the federal government's radar.

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