The original Ku Klux Klan had died out in the late 1870s as post-Civil War Reconstruction was drawing to a close. A myth persisted, however, that the organization had been largely responsible for saving the South from corrupt outside influences.
In 1915, a new klan was started in Stone Mountain, Georgia, by William Simmons, a Methodist minister who had taken inspiration from the favorable portrayal of the klan in D.W. Griffith`s epic film, The Birth of a Nation. Emphasizing costumes, rallies and secret rituals, the klan grew rapidly in the South. The initial targets were blacks, whom many whites felt had been warped by wartime experiences. Black workers on the home front had earned respectable wages and expected the same after the war, and black veterans, who had witnessed a racially tolerant society in France, longed for a more accepting America. Perturbed whites believed the blacks had to be put back in their place.
The appeal of the Klan spread to the North and West, and at its peak in the mid-1920s achieved a total membership of four million or more. Members served in state legislatures and Congress, and were elected to the governorship in several states. Indiana, Oklahoma, Texas and Oregon saw significantKlan influence.
The central Klan offices marketed regalia and literature to local units, but agendas were molded by community conditions and concerns. Blacks were the subject of Klan activity in both the North and South, as were Jews, Catholics and immigrants. The Klan also organized to oppose the teaching of evolution in the schools, dissemination of birth control devices and information, and efforts to repeal prohibition.
Hiram Wesley Evans was a Dallas dentist who became the Klan`s Imperial Wizard in November 1922. Writing in North American Review in 1926, Evans expressed the core sentiment of the Klan:
Finally came the moral breakdown that has been going on for two decades. One by one all our traditional moral standards went by the boards or were so disregarded that they ceased to be binding. The sacredness of our Sabbath, of our homes, of chastity, and finally even of our right to teach our own children in our own schools fundamental facts and truths were torn away from us. Those who maintained the old standards did so only in the face of constant ridicule.
Probably the majority of klan members confined their opposition tactics to parading and burning crosses, the latter an innovation of the new Klan. However, violence was not uncommon public whippings, tarring and feathering, and lynching occurred in many sections of the country.
Serious concern about Klan activity was raised early in its history, especially by a series of exposÚs in the Baltimore Sun and the New York World. It was, however, the conduct of a number of Klan leaders that finally led to the group`s decline. In particular, Indiana Klan leader David Stephenson was convicted in 1925 of kidnapping and second degree murder. To get his sentence lightened, he implicated other Indiana officials whose corrupt activities were widely reported. By 1930, membership nationwide had plummeted to around 10,000.
In the West and South, the second Ku Klux Klan comprised largely poor, rural and fundamentalist Protestant members who believed that evil came from the cities, non-Northern European immigrants and a postwar tolerance for loose morality. A more urban character was evident in the North.
The klan would make a third appearance in the United States in the post-World War II period another time of rapid social change.
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The Ku Klux Klan in the City, 1915-1930 by Kenneth T. Jackson.
For decades the most frightening example of bigotry and hatred in America, the Ku Klux Klan has usually been seen as a rural and small-town product an...