At any previous peak of Klan activity, they were de-centralized. Soon after they were founded in 1865 in Tennessee, there were multiple groups, indistinguishable from each other; the Knights of the White Camelia, the White League, the Ku Klux Klan, and others. There have been three previous waves of Klan activity, each stronger than the previous one, all in reaction to advancement in some way of Black Americans. We are now in the Fourth Wave. While there are dozens of currently active groups named Klan, the main groups have different names like Proud Boys, Boogaloo Bois, and Oath Keepers. Though some would resent being linked to the Klan which they consider low class, they are the Klan, and all they represent just the same.
The First Wave began in Pulaski, Tennessee when six former Confederate soldiers sat around drinking on Christmas Eve and thought up the Klan. The thought of formerly enslaved people running around free annoyed them, but states had already passed Black Codes that did all they could to reinvent enslavement so they weren’t that mad. It took Congress passing the first of the Reconstruction Acts and states passing the Fourteenth Amendment that pissed people off. By the time the Fifteenth Amendment passed and Black people got the right to vote, the Klan was everywhere.
You might think the Klan only flourished in the South, but you’d be wrong. After the Civil War, everywhere people spread the Klan went with them. Oregon, California, Minnesota, New York, and elsewhere. The early Klan had shame enough to hide their faces behind hoods, They met in secret and came out only at night. Their goal was not only terror but anonymity. They knew they were wrong but also unlikely to be prosecuted by law enforcement. In many cases, they were law enforcement on their day jobs.
The First Klan was strongest from 1865–1872. They assassinated Black leaders and terrorized Black people generally. Lynching and rapes were commonplace. Later iterations of the Klan would spread their hatred to Catholics, Jews, immigrants, and anyone not straight or white; but the First Klan was a reaction to the freeing of Black people and Reconstruction. They were focused.
It’s barely conceivable now but the Republican-controlled Congress took action to stop the Klan. They passed Enforcement Acts, highlighted by the Ku Klux Klan Act of1871, designed to crush the Klan. The military targeted the Klan and drove them into hiding. The Klan didn’t disappear; they became White Leagues and Red Shirts. They became the Chamber of Commerce of their day, legitimate but still evil. But they were weakened, waiting for the next reason for the Klan to rise again.
The Second Klan began in 1915, it was a nostalgia movement, lamenting that America wasn’t white enough. The new Klan was triggered by the film, “The Birth of a Nation,” in which the Klan was The Avengers with Black people and Reconstruction having changed America like Thanos after the snap. The Second Klan grew to over four million members, not hiding as much, even marching on Washington long before Farrakhan and the Million Man March in 1995.
The Second Klan expanded their hatred to include Catholics, Jews, and immigrants. Their goal was to Make America Great Again and besides lynching Black people they burned lots of crosses and held marches (the Trump rallies of their day). I don’t mean to underestimate their violence. They killed hundreds at a time in little-publicized like in Ocoee, Florida, or the Greenwood District of Tulsa Oklahoma. The American media was complicit in minimizing the Klan’s murderous activities by focusing on only white deaths and greatly underestimating Black death tolls. The NAACP was moved to fly a flag noting, “A Man Was Lynched Yesterday,” which flew over seven hundred times until their landlord forced them to remove it.
The second Klan was funded by initiation fees and the purchase of robes (MAGA hats). Congress of the 1920s wasn’t interested in stopping the Klan, it took the Great Depression to cause the Klan to go broke and see their membership drop to about 30,000. The Klan didn’t die and kept moving towards respectability. Their membership included Mayors, Governors, members of Congress in both houses, and at least one Supreme Court Justice, Hugo Black. There are five US Presidents rumored to have ties to the Klan, not including a recent one that views them as “very fine people.”
“The general feeling in the community was that if responsible citizens didn’t join the Klan it would soon become dominated by the less responsible members.” — Justice Hugo Black
The Third Klan was kick-started by the Civil Rights Movement, in particular the Supreme Court case Brown v Board of Education. If you think people went crazy over Critical Race Theory, imagine people being told their children had to attend school with Black children? Even though the ruling delayed actual integration indefinitely, the “With all deliberate speed” clause. The Klan was needed again and sprung into action.
While the second wave of the Klan generated between 3–6 million memberships. The third wave came along at a time people wanted to pretend it didn’t exist. Historians are clear on the beginning in the 1950s, yet maintain simultaneously that it is still going, while claiming current membership is as low as 3,000 people. If the second wave died out at 30,000, how can the third wave be alive at 3,000? Could it be the third wave is kept alive to disavow the fourth?
If the first wave was a reaction to freeing the enslaved, the second wave was a reaction to increased immigration and foreign religions, the third wave to civil rights and integration. What then caused the fourth wave which is still cresting with a vengeance. I submit it was the election of a Black President. The Whitelash in response to Barack Obama has been greater than the response to any other event in history. It sought out his polar opposite in Donald Trump. It made behavior acceptable that once brought shame. People that once felt shame when being called racist now wore the title like a badge of honor.
“Let them call you racist. Let them call you xenophobes. Let them call you nativists. Wear it as a badge of honor. Because every day, we get stronger and they get weaker.” — Steve Bannon
The name Klan is mostly unpopular, America is down to 110 active Klan organizations according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. The other organizations include neo-Nazis, skinheads, white nationalists, and white supremacists, exceeding the Klan by far. What they have now that the first few waves didn’t is money, organizations, and education. The leadership of many of these groups now have law and business degrees. They can raise unlimited dollars from anonymous donors. The Supreme Court in Citizens United said so.
If you think of the Klan as those that think like the Klan, there’s no telling how many of them there are? Just under seventy-five million people voted for Trump. Certainly, not all of them could be considered the Klan, but how many are not complicit in ignoring Klan-like behavior.
Martin Luther King, Jr had many quotes about the participation of good people that do nothing:
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.
Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.
The hottest place in Hell is reserved for those who remain neutral in times of great moral conflict.
The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.
The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.
We will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.
Pity may represent little more than the impersonal concern which prompts the mailing of a check, but true sympathy is the personal concern which demands the giving of one’s soul.
Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.
The first question which the priest and the Levite asked was: “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” But… the good Samaritan reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”
In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.
He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.”
Pick any of them and apply it to any of the millions that willfully stood alongside racists, xenophobes, and misogynists. They may not be carrying a membership card but they contributed to the cause.
The Patriot Front marched proudly down the streets of Boston to shout to the world they are here and who they are. Skinheads, Neo-Nazis, and MAGA fanatics. None are different than the Klan, they’re just better financed.
We are well into the fourth wave of the Klan. Growth is continuing with no end in sight. The FBI recognizes right-wing extremists (the Klan) as the most dangerous threat to America. This is the fourth wave of the Klan. Right now! Saying anything else is living in a bubble.
This post was previously published on MEDIUM.COM.
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