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IT started as something of a lark, just 100 years ago. On Dec. 24, 1865, in Pulaski, Tenn., six young ex-Confederate officers, looking for something to occupy their time, got together to form a club. Like college kids, they gave the club all the trappings of a fraternity—mysterious rites, initiations, secret words. For a name, they hit on the Greek word for circle, kyklos, gave it a few twists and came up with Ku Klux Klan. For kicks, they made robes and hoods out of bedsheets and pillowcases, and took to riding sheet-draped horses solemnly through the town at night. Soon they discovered that their frolics frightened superstitious Negroes, and that was reason enough for scores of others to join in the fun.

To fight Reconstruction, Klansmen decided to organize nationally. In Nashville, in 1867, they drew up a constitution, picked for their Imperial Wizard the Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest, and turned their talents to terrorism. Cloaked in their sheets and masks, they rode the countryside thirsting for violence. Anyone—white or black—who cooperated with Reconstruction was fair game for barbarism. White men who taught in Negro schools were lashed, and their schools were set afire and reduced to ashes. Negroes who refused to work for white men, or who seemed to flourish on their own, were thrashed with whips; somewere hanged, some castrated, some burned to death, some murdered and quartered like animals.

For the most part, the Klan’s outrages were applauded by Southerners who felt that the K.K.K. was the last best hope for the South’s lily-white cause. But in 1869, Nathan Forrest himself ordered the Klan to disband. As University of Florida Professor David Chalmers writes in his book, Hooded Americanism, “A secret masked society, composed of autonomous units, dedicated to the use of force, operating in unsettled times, proved impossible to control. The better citizens were dropping out and the quality of membership in many of the states was declining.”

“Practical Fraternity.” The Klan mentality, however, never died; it merely lay quiescent, while apologists fed it intravenously with myths. Thomas Dixon Jr.’s 1905 book, The Clansman, idealized the K.K.K. as a righteous crusade led by noble men, and D. W. Griffith immortalized the book in 1914 with his film, The Birth of a Nation.

An itinerant Methodist preacher named William Joseph Simmons started up the Klan again in Atlanta in 1915. Simmons, an ascetic-looking man, was a fetishist on fraternal organizations. He was already a “colonel” in the Woodmen of the World, but he decided to build an organization all his own. He was an effective speaker, with an affinity for alliteration; he had preached on “Women, Weddings and Wives,” “Red Heads, Dead Heads and No Heads,” and the “Kinship of Kourtship and Kissing.” On Thanksgiving Eve 1915, Simmons took 15 friends to the top of Stone Mountain, near Atlanta, built an altar on which he placed an American flag, a Bible and an unsheathed sword, set fire to a crude wooden cross, muttered a few incantations about a “practical fraternity among men,” and declared himself Imperial Wizard of the Invisible Empire of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.

Publicity & Politics. Under Simmons, the Klan drifted along for four years, collecting a membership of a few thousand people (using such come-on slogans as “a high-class order for men of intelligence and character,” and “a classy order of the highest class”) and a small treasury. Then, to breathe greater life into the organization, Simmons hired Edward Clark Young, a press-agent who specialized in fund raising, and Young’s partner, a well-to-do widow named Elizabeth Tyler. Young set forth the Klan’s goal in terms of Christian morality v. sin. The enemies of America, the Klan proclaimed, were booze, loose women, Jews, Negroes, Roman Catholics (whose “dago” Pope was bent on taking over the U.S.), and anybody else who was not a native-born white Protestant Anglo-Saxon. Many churchmen across the nation acclaimed the Klan’s program, and in the South especially, Methodist and Baptist clergymen lent the K.K.K. massive support. It was not long before it blossomed into a mighty nationwide organization that claimed to number in its hooded ranks about 4,000,000 members.

As a political force, the Klan was incredibly effective. It was a key issue in the 1924 and 1928 presidential conventions and campaigns, as well as in hundreds of local elections. Klan organizations elected judges, mayors and other city officials, sheriffs, state legislators, and even some Governors, Senators and Congressmen. Many politicians joined the K.K.K. out of fierce conviction, others merely in order to survive. Alabama’s Hugo Black became a member, but he quit in 1925, a year before he was elected a Democratic U.S. Senator; in 1934, after F.D.R. named him to the Supreme Court, Black repudiated racism and religious intolerance on a nationwide radio speech.

Klanonyms. Klansmen appeared as self-appointed judges, juries and executioners. They resumed the reign of terror against Negroes. They tarred and feathered men and women—white and black—whom they suspected of illicit sexual relations, and lynched, mutilated or lashed hundreds of others. They tortured Jewish shopkeepers, whom they accused of massive international financial conspiracies; they published a spurious Knights of Columbus “oath” that portrayed Roman Catholics as villainous conspirators against the U.S. Their bedsheets became robes emblazoned with ornate embroidery, and they invented a whole new thesaurus of Klanonyms. There were the Kleagle and the Klabee, the Kladd and the Klaliff, the Klectoken and the Klexter, the Klig-rapp and the Klokan, the Klokard and the Kloncilium, the Klonklave and the Klonvokation, the Kloran and the Kla-rogo, the Klorero and the Kludd.*In the Klan Kalendar, the days of the week were named Dark, Deadly, Dismal, Doleful, Desolate, Dreadful and Desperate; the weeks of the month were Woeful, Weeping, Wailing, Wonderful and Weird, and the months Bloody, Gloomy, Hideous, Fearful, Furious, Alarming, Terrible, Horrible, Mournful, Sorrowful, Frightful and Appalling.

The Injured Image. The Klan’s operations provided tidy profits for Imperial Wizard Simmons and the publicity team of Young and Tyler, but by 1924 the Klan’s great days were ending. Several states invoked anti-Klan laws; others forbade the Klan to wear masks. Corruption among the bosses and internecine battles for leadership further weakened the organization. In 1926 David Stephenson, the posturing Grand Dragon of the Indiana Realm, was convicted of murder after the lower-berth Pullman-car rape of a young woman. The Indiana affair hurt the Klan image considerably more than the castrations and lynchings that Klansmen had perpetrated in all the years before. Members resigned by the hundreds. In the ’30s the Klan cuddled up to U.S. Nazis, and continued all the while to murder Negroes and “immoral” whites, chiefly in the South.

During World War II, the Klan slept again. But in 1954 the U.S. Supreme Court’s school desegregation decision awakened it once more. As in the beginning, the Klan made the Southern Negro—and civil rights “agitators”—its target, and turned to dynamite bombings as its chief form of violence. Much of the Klan’s terrorism is handled by goon squads with such picturesque names as “The Holy Terrors” and “The Secret Six.” Such groups were held responsible for the mutilation and murder of three civil rights workers who were found in an earthen dam in Mississippi last June, for the killing of Washington, D.C., Educator Lemuel Penn in Georgia last July, and for the death of Mrs. Viola Liuzzo in Selma last month.

The Mentality. No longer a monolithic organization, the Klan today consists of several ragtag independent groups, the best known of which is the United Klans of America, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, Inc., headquartered in Tuscaloosa, Ala., with an ex-tire salesman named Robert Shelton as its Imperial Wizard. Estimates of Klan strength range from 10,000 to 40,000 members, many of whom for some peculiar reason seem to be rural service-station attendants. Most members, in any case, are deluded rednecks whose only skill is sharpshooting. That the FBI has infiltrated deeply into their ranks is indicated by the speed with which agents rounded up the four suspected killers of Mrs. Liuzzo.

Crushing the Klan is tougher than infiltrating it. Local Southern juries ordinarily let Klansmen off no matter what the accusation. The only federal charge that can be leveled in most cases—such as in the Liuzzo murder-deals with “denying the civil rights” of the victim, and the maximum penalty for the crime is only ten years in prison. Even though Congress might now enact legislation outlawing the Klan, the deeper problem is that the law alone can never erase the Klan mentality.

*Kleagle, Klabee, Kladd, Klaliff, Klexter, Kligrapp, Klarogo, Klokan and Klokard are officials of various sorts; Klectoken is the initiation fee; Kloran is Klan bible; Klonvokation is the Imperial legislature; Kloncilium is the Klonvokation’s advisory group; Klonklave is the Klan’s monthly meeting; Klorero is a state meeting; and Kludd is the chaplain.

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