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What is the Ku Klux Klan (KKK)?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 17, 2024
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The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) is a highly secretive and very notorious white supremacist organization based in the American South. There have actually been three separate incarnations of the KKK, a result of repeated efforts to curtail the more radical activities of the Klan's members. The precise number of members in the Ku Klux Klan is unknown, especially as there are numerous branches of white supremacist organizations which claim KKK affiliations, but estimates from the 1990s hovered around 5,000 confirmed members.

The origins of the first incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan lie in the Civil War, when white Southerners came to be concerned about their status in an antebellum world. In response, a group of Civil War veterans formed the KKK for the express purpose of promoting white dominance in the South, using acts of terrorism and harassment of black Southerners to accomplish their goals. In addition to harassing the black community, Klan members also threatened civil rights supporters, immigrants, Catholics, members of labor unions, and people of the Jewish faith.

In the 1870s, the Ku Klux Klan was classified as a terrorist organization, in part because of a backlash among Southerners who credited the Klan with a rise in violence in the South. The organization was suppressed, and largely disbanded until 1915, when the film Birth of a Nation mobilized a new generation of white supremacists who developed a variety of tactics, including anonymous appearances in hoods and cloaks, to popularize the Klan. The rise of immigration into the United States fed the growth of the second version of the KKK, as many Americans feared the influence of immigration on traditional American values.

During the Second World War, the Ku Klux Klan shrank again, only to be reinvigorated in the 1950s and 1960s by the civil rights movement. Members of the Klan conducted lynchings, bombings, and other terrorist activities in an attempt to fight the growing tide of civil rights, and they were implicated in a variety of violent crimes including intimidation and harassment. The organization also became much less socially acceptable as a result of outspoken criticism from religious leaders, government officials, and prominent community members.

The influence of the KKK in the United States has declined radically since the mid-20th century, when many Klansmen were quite open about their activities. Modern versions of the Ku Klux Klan usually focus on promoting so-called “white Christian values,” and some actively condemn the militant terrorism which has been historically associated with the organization. Although the modern KKK may not be staging cross burnings and public lynchings, one could certainly argue that it contributes to the perpetuation of racism in the United States, as well as anti-immigrant sentiments.

America Explained is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a America Explained researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon1002689 — On Jan 24, 2020

According to the Anti-Defamation League, there are only about 3,000 Klan members spread among about 30 Klan groups spread throughout the country. So basically a handful of losers watching porn in mommy's basement. Good riddance.

By anon927171 — On Jan 22, 2014

I think it's important to understand that the "Democrats" in power around the time of the first KKK incarnation were not the same as the modern Democratic Party we know. They weren't necessarily liberal on social issues or especially tolerant of minorities, especially the newly freed blacks. The original KKK wasn't about political leanings of its members as it was about restoring a "sense of order" in the post-war South. According to the Klan's leaders, white Southern women were being raped by black men, Southern traditions were being destroyed by federal occupation and a lot of Southern men were either too lazy or too shell-shocked to do much about it.

The original KKK did do a lot of horrible things to a lot of innocent people, but their ultimate goal was to motivate Southerners of a certain bent to take control of their own destiny and resist the heavy-handed reunification tactics of the federal government. The second and third reincarnations of the KKK put far too much emphasis on racial oppression and intolerance towards others.

By SnowyWinter — On Nov 03, 2010

@cellmania: It is said that the Ku Klux Klan was formed by radical Democrats who were opposed to equality for black people.

In 1924, the Democrat National Convention in New York hosted one of the largest KKK gatherings in history.

In 1871, the Republican Congress came up with the Ku Klux Klan Act, which outlawed Democratic party-affiliated terrorist groups.

By CellMania — On Nov 03, 2010

Was the Ku Klux Klan formed by the Democrats?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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