The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) is a white supremacist organization that was founded in 1866. Throughout its notorious history, factions of the secret fraternal organization have used acts of terrorism—including murder, lynching, arson, rape, and bombing—to oppose the granting of civil rights to African Americans. Deriving its membership from native-born, white Protestant U.S. citizens, the KKK has also been anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic, and has opposed the immigration of all those it does not view as "racially pure."
Ex-Confederate soldiers established the Ku Klux Klan in Pulaski, Tennessee, in 1866. They developed the first two words of the group's name from the Greek word kuklos, meaning "group or band," and took the third as a variant of the word clan. Starting as a largely recreational group, the Klan soon turned to intimidating newly freed African Americans. Riding at night, the Klan terrorized and sometimes murdered those it opposed. Members adopted a hooded white costume—a guise intended to represent the ghosts of the Confederate dead—to avoid identification and to frighten victims during nighttime raids.
Shortly after the KKK's formation, Nathan Bedford Forrest, a former slave trader and Confederate general, assumed control of the organization and turned it into a militaristic, hierarchical entity. In 1868, Forrest formally disbanded the group after he became appalled by its growing violence. However, the KKK continued to grow, and its atrocities worsened. Drawing the core of its membership from ex-Confederate soldiers, the KKK may have numbered several hundred thousand at its height during the years following the Civil War.
In 1871, the federal government took a series of steps to counter the KKK and its violence. Congress organized a joint select committee made up of seven senators and 14 representatives to look into the Klan and its activities. It then passed the Civil Rights Act of 1871, frequently referred to as the Ku Klux Klan Act, which made night-riding a crime and empowered the president to order the use of federal troops to put down conspirators by force. The law also provided criminal and civil penalties for people convicted of private conspiracies—such as those perpetrated by the KKK—intended to deny others their civil rights.
The KKK experienced a resurgence after World War I, reaching a peak of 3 or 4 million members in the 1920s. David W. Griffith's 1915 movie The Birth of a Nation, based on Thomas Dixon's 1905 novel The Clansman, served as the spark for this revival. The movie depicted the Klan as a heroic force defending the "Aryan birthright" of white southerners against African Americans and Radical Republicans seeking to build a Black Empire in the South. In particular, the movie showed a gallant Klan defending the honor of white women threatened by lecherous African American men.
William J. Simmons renewed the KKK at a Stone Mountain, Georgia, ceremony in 1915. Later, Christian fundamentalist ministers aided recruitment as the Klan portrayed itself as the protector of traditional values during the Jazz Age.
As its membership grew into the millions in the 1920s, the Klan exerted considerable political influence, helping to elect sympathetic candidates to state and national offices. The group was strong not only in southern states such as Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, and Texas, but also in Oklahoma, California, Oregon, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York. Strongly opposed to non–Anglo-Saxon immigration, the Klan helped secure the passage of strict quotas on immigration. In addition to being racist, the group also espoused hatred of Jews, Catholics, socialists, and unions.
By the end of the 1920s, a backlash against the KKK had developed. Reports of its violence turned public sentiment against the group, and its membership declined to about 40,000. At the same time, Louisiana, Michigan, and Oklahoma passed anti-mask laws intended to frustrate Klan activity. Most of these laws made it a misdemeanor to wear a mask that concealed the identity of the wearer, excluding masks worn for holiday costumes or other legitimate uses. South Carolina, Virginia, and Georgia later passed similar laws.