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The Ku Klux Klan

February is Black History Month. Each day this month, some historical aspect of black people in America will be featured in a Black History Month Moment. Today's moment concerns the Ku Klux Klan.

Who can forget the Ku Klux Klan?

This race-hate group emerged during the Reconstruction period after the Civil War. Its message was white supremacy and its targets were black people and their white allies. The Klan also has directed its venom toward Jews and other minorities.

Although slavery ended when the Civil War was over, some Southern leaders wanted a method to control the recently emancipated black people. Black people now had the vote, and that had to be managed somehow, lest the South be represented by black lawmakers and other elected officials. Through fear, threats, intimidation and violence _ including murder _ the Ku Klux Klan tried to do this.

The Klan was started in 1866 or 1867 after the end of the Civil War by a group of former Confederate soldiers in Pulaski, Tenn. The KKK's first leader or grand wizard was Nathan Bedford Forrest, a former Confederate general.

The Klan's activities can be divided into four periods _ mid-1860s to the early 1870s, 1915 to 1944, the late 1940s to the early 1970s and the 1970s to the present. Membership has ranged from a high of more than 2-million during the 1920s to an estimated 6,000 in recent years.

Cross-burning and the wearing of hooded robes have been mainstays of the Klan throughout its history.

While the KKK still exists, today's form is a milder version of the turn-of-the-century nightriders. Declining interest in membership and successful civil court actions and criminal prosecutions are contributing factors.

Following is a transcript of an account from a former slave, taken several years later, of his encounters with the Klan in South Carolina. His testimony was part of a congressional hearing investigating the Ku Klux Klan's tyranny. In April 1871, after the hearings, Congress passed a law empowering the president to act against the Klan. The law forced the Klan into hiatus until it reappeared in 1915.

Willis Johnson testified:

"When I awoke, as near as I can tell, it was between 12 and 1 o'clock. I heard someone call, "Sims." I held still and listened, and heard them walk from his door to my door. I was upstairs, and I got up and came downstairs. They walked back to his house again and asked him to put his head out. He did not answer, but his wife asked them who they were. They said they were friends. They walked back to my door again, and just as they got to the door they blew a whistle. Another whistle off a piece answered, and then men seemed to surround the house and all parts of the yard. Then they hallooed, "Open the door.'

"I said nothing. I went to the head of the bed and got my pistol and leaned forward on the table with the pistol just at the door. They tried with several surges to get the door open, but it did not come open. They went to the wood pile and got the ax and struck the front door some licks, bursted it open and then went to the back door and burst it open. Nobody had yet come into the house. They said, "Strike a light.' Then I dropped down on my knees back of the table, and they struck some matches and threw them in the house, and two of them stepped in the front door, and that brought them within arm's length of me. . . . As soon as they did that, I raised my pistol quickly, right up one's back, and shot, and he fell and hallooed, and the other tried to pull him out. As he pulled him, I shot again. As they were pulling, others ran up and pulled him out in the yard, and . . . the whole party was out in the yard. I stepped to the door and shot again and then jumped to the back door and ran.

"I got off. I stayed away until the next morning; then I came back and tracked them half a mile, where they had toted this man and laid him down. I was afraid to go further. Mr. Sims and I were together, and I would not go any further, and he told me to go away, that I ought not to stay there, that he saw the men and saw the wounded man and was satisfied that he was dead or mortally wounded, and I must leave.

"Mr. John Calmes, the candidate of the Democrats for the legislature, advised me to take a paper and go around the settlement to the white people, stating that I would never vote the radical ticket, and he said he did not think they would interfere with me then. He said that all they had against me was that on Election Day I took the tickets around among the black people; and he said: "You knocked me out of a good many votes, but you are a good fellow and a good laborer, and we want labor in this country.' I told him I would not do that . . . . "

Sources: World Book Encyclopedia, The Negro Almanac, The Black Americans: A History in Their Own Words

Discussion questions

1. How and why was the Ku Klux Klan founded?

2. What is the significance of the hooded robes the Klan members wear?

3. How did the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 send the Klan into hiding?