.. mounted to the virtual re-enslavement of blacks. In Louisiana the democratic convention resolved that “we hold this to be a government of White People, made and to be perpetuated for the exclusive benefit of the White Race, and.. that the people of African descent cannot be considered as citizens of the United States.” (2). Mississippi and Florida in particular enacted vicious black codes, other southern states (except North Carolina) passed somewhat less severe versions, and President Andrew Johnson did nothing to prevent them from being enforced. These laws and violence that erupted against blacks and union supporters in the South outraged Northerners who just a few months before had celebrated victory not only over the Confederacy, but its system of slavery as well.
In protest of the defiant black codes, Congress refused to seat the new Southern senators and representatives when it reconvened in December 1865 after a long recess. Thus, at the moment the fledgling Klan was born in Pulaski, the stage was set for the showdown between Northerners determined not to be cheated out of the fruits of their victory and die-hard southerners who refused to give up their supremacy over blacks. Ironically, the increasingly violent activities of the Klan throughout 1866 tended to help prove the argument of Radical Republicans of the North, who wanted harsher measures taken against southern governments as part of their program to force equal treatment for blacks. Partly as a result of news reports of Klan violence in the South, the Radicals won overwhelming victories in the Congressional elections of 1866. In early 1867 they made a fresh start at Reconstruction. Congress overrode President Johnson’s veto and passed the Reconstruction Acts, which abolished the ex-Confederate state governments and divided 10 of the 11 former rebel states into military districts. The military were charged with the enrolling of black voters and holding elections for new constitutional conventions in each of the 10 states, which led to the creation of the Radical Reconstruction Southern governments.
From this point on, the Klan steadily became increasingly more violent in response to the new federal reconstruction policy. Thousands of the white citizens of Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi had by this time joined the Klan and many now viewed the escalating violence with growing alarm- not necessarily because they had sympathy for the victims but because the night riding was getting out of their control. Anyone could put on a sheet and mask and ride into the night to commit assault, robbery, rape arson, and murder. By early 1868, stories about Klan activities were appearing in newspapers nationwide and Reconstruction governors realized they faced nothing less than insurrection by a terrorist organization. Orders went out from state capitols and Union army headquarters to supress the Klan. Unfortunately, it was too late.
From middle Tennessee, the Klan was quickly established in nearby counties and then in North and South Carolina. In some counties the Klan became the de facto law, an invisible government that state officials could not control. When Tennessee governor William C. Brownlow attempted to plant spies within the Klan, he found the organization knew as much about his efforts as he did. One Brownlow spy who tried to join the Klan was found strung up in a tree.
Later another spy was stripped and mutilated, and a third was stuffed into a barrel in Nashville and rolled into the Cumberland River where he drowned. With the tacit sympathy and support of most white citizens often behind, the Klan worked behind a veil that was impossible for Brownlow and other Reconstruction governors to pierce. But even though a large majority of white Southerners opposed the radical state governments, not all of them approved of the hooded order’s brand of vigilante justice. ” During its first year, the Klan’s public marches and parades were sometimes hooted and jeered at by townspeople who looked upon them as a joke”. (3) Later, when the Klan began to use guns and whips to make its point, some civic leaders spoke out against the violence.
But in the 1860’s white southern voices against the Klan were in the minority. One of the Klan’s greatest strengths during this period was the large number of editors, ministers, former Confederate officers and political leaders who hid behind its sheets and guided its actions. As the violence escalated, it turned into general lawlessness and some Klan groups even began fighting each other. In Nashville, a gang of outlaws who adopted the Klan disguise came to be known as the Black Ku Klux Klan, and for several months middle Tennessee was plagued by a guerrilla war between the real and bogus Klans. The Klan was also coming under increased attack by Congress and the Reconstruction state governments.
The leaders of the Klan realized that the orders’ end was at hand, at least as any sort of organized force. It is widely believed that Forrest ordered the Klan disbanded in January 1869, but the surviving document is rather ambiguous (some historians think Forrest’s “order” was just a trick so he could deny responsibility or knowledge of Klan activities). Whatever the actual date, it is clear that as an organized body across the South, the KKK had ceased to exist by the end of 1869. That did not end the violence, however, and as atrocities became more widespread, radical legislatures throughout the region passed harsher laws, imposed martial law in some Klan-dominated counties, and actively hunted Klan leaders. In 1871 Congress held hearings on the Klan and passed a tough anti-Klan law modeled after a North Carolina statute.
Under the new federal law, Southerners lost their jurisdiction over the crimes of assault, robbery and murder, and the president was authorized to declare martial law. Night riding and the wearing of masks were expressly prohibited. Hundreds of Klansmen were arrested but few actually went to prison. These laws probably dampened the enthusiasm for the Klan, but they can hardly be credited with destroying it. The fact was, by the mid-1870’s white southerners had retaken control of most Southern state governments and didn’t need the Klan as much as before. Klan terror had proven very effective at keeping black voters away from the polls.
Some black office holders were hanged and many more brutally beaten. White Southern Democrats won elections easily, and passed laws taking away many rights that blacks had won during Reconstruction. The result was a system of segregation that was the law of the land for over eighty years. This system was called “separate but equal”, which was half true- everything was separate, but nothing was equal. During the last half of the 19th century, memories of the Klan’s brief grip on the South faded, and its bloody deeds were forgotten by many whites who were once in sympathy for its cause.
However, the Klan would be reborn again, and the only question Americans could ask was when. American History.