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The Ku Klux Klan, first of two organizations using that name, was founded in Pulaski, Tennessee in 1855-56. It started as a well-intentioned social group of former Confederate officers, taking its name from the Greek word kuklos (meaning u0093circleu0094). However, its demeanor changed to opposing Republican governments that had been imposed on the South during Reconstruction. The Klan also began to preach a doctrine of white supremacy in reaction to the appearance of freed blacks in government and other parts of Southern society.

Klan members dressed themselves in white sheets or robes and wore masks to disguise their identities. They staged silent marches and threatening midnight horseback rides, leading untutored former slaves to believe that the ghosts of the Confederate dead had risen to reclaim their land. In many areas threats gave way to beatings, whippings, mutilations and lynchings. Black voters, scalawags and carpetbaggers were all targets of this violence. Such actions were defended by some Klansmen as a means of protecting white womanhood.

Klan activities were especially successful in Tennessee, Georgia and North Carolina, where many Republicans were driven from office and blacks discouraged from voting.

In 1867 local Klan groups met in Nashville to form a regional organization, the Invisible Empire of the South. The noted Confederate cavalry leader, Nathan Bedford Forrest, was named Grand Wizard. Forrest and other concerned Southerners grew increasingly alarmed about the growing violence; in 1869 the Grand Wizard disbanded the organization. Some local groups remained active into the 1870s, but societal disapproval, a series of federal indictments and the end of Reconstruction caused the Klan to wither away.

In the years following World War I, the Invisible Empire, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan appeared on a national level to spread the word of white supremacy and nativism.

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