Origins of the First Klan (ca. 1866–1874)
Although the first Klan was less centralized than the second, explains Foner, it effectively aimed "to destroy the Republican party's infrastructure, undermine the Reconstruction state, reestablish control of the black labor force, and restore racial subordination in every aspect of Southern life." To achieve these ends, Klansmen donned white-sheeted regalia that covered their bodies and masked their faces as they employed unseemly methods of intimidation, including rape, beating, murder, and lynching. Members of the so-called Invisible Empire relied upon secrecy and anonymity to avoid being caught and to create an environment of fear in which blacks and pro-Reconstruction whites had to live under a constant threat of violence.
The First Klan in Virginia
In Virginia the first Klan's life was brief. According to historian Allen W. Trelease, the Klan appeared in the Old Dominion in March 1868 and—with a few exceptions—disappeared by the end of April, just a month later. Its presence was not, however, without incident. Margaret Newbold Thorpe, a teacher at a freedmen's school outside of Williamsburg during this period, observed: The Ku Klux have been in our neighborhood, and we have received notice that they intend giving us a call [sic] … Their outrages and murders have become matters of history; one of the missionaries in this part of Va.—a New England man, a cripple, was dragged from his bed and over the ground to the woods and terribly beaten. The poor wife never left him, and took him back nearly dead. Klan-related violence also occurred in Lee, Warrenton, and Rockingham counties.
Virginia newspapers, in particular the Richmond Daily Enquirer & Examiner, helped to spread interest in the hooded order. In an editorial from March 26, 1868, the Daily Enquirer & Examiner lauds the Klan's objectives and describes it as an organization which is thoroughly loyal to the Federal constitution, but which will not permit the people of the South to become the victims of negro rule. It is purely defensive, and for the protection of the white race, and has been rendered necessary by the organization of thousands of secret negro leagues, whose members have been stimulated to carry out the work of disfranchisement of the whites by the promise of pillage and wholesale confiscation.
News of this nature helped the Klan garner support throughout the state. While estimates of statewide Klan membership are unknown, the Daily Richmond Whig claimed that Richmond alone counted 4,000 members. However, after reports of Klan violence in Virginia, newspapers—even the Daily Enquirer & Examiner—changed their tone and, according to Trelease, ridiculed the Klan as an organization that "no one in his right mind took seriously." With public support weakened, perhaps more so because the state was never truly under Republican control, the Klan's foothold in Virginia slipped.
Fall of the First Klan
On October 17, 1871, President Ulysses S. Grant suspended the writ of habeas corpus in nine South Carolina counties in the northern part of the state, where the Klan was particularly violent. He was the first president to do so during peacetime. Most of the Klan disbanded when its members fled the state or were imprisoned. The destruction of the Klan in South Carolina reverberated throughout other states and caused the movement's ultimate collapse, allowing Republicans to turn their attention away from the South and to other issues. In 1874, the Democratic Party took control of the House of Representatives. Three years later, after Republican Rutherford B. Hayes was placed in the White House with the understanding that all federal troops would be removed from the former Confederate states, the death knell rang for Radical Reconstruction. With the federal government's face averted from issues of civil rights, Southern state governments were free to begin disfranchising African Americans through the passage of state and local segregation legislation, called Jim Crow laws, and to enforce such a process with outright violence and lynching.
Origins of the Second Klan (1915–1944)
While the first Klan was a distinctly southern white movement, the second and most popular Klan—the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, Incorporated—was national in scope. Along with its traditional racial values and espousal of white supremacy, this national Klan defended what it termed "one-hundred-percent Americanism" and in this effort set its sights on what it deemed to be "un-American": Jews, Catholics, organized labor, immigrants, the alcohol industry, and prostitution. Of the three distinct Klans, this was the most active and powerful, with a membership that peaked at several million in the mid-1920s.
In the autumn of 1915, William Joseph Simmons decided to use the premiere of Birth of a Nation to inaugurate the second Klan with a cross-burning ceremony atop Stone Mountain, in Georgia. Simmons, an Alabaman who earlier in his career had tried his hand at ministry but was denied a pulpit because of "moral impairment," was a paid organizer and member of several fraternal orders, including the Woodmen of the World. Claiming to have had a longstanding plan of resurrecting the Klan, Simmons borrowed from his work experience to incorporate the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan as a centrally managed fraternal organization that would stand for "comprehensive Americanism." When Birth of a Nation opened in Atlanta, Georgia, in December 1915, local newspapers carried advertisements announcing Simmons's Klan.
With the United States' entry into World War I in 1917 came powerful nativistic and anti-immigration sentiments in which the Klan found a purpose: the nation, explains historian David M. Chalmers, "had to be defended against alien enemies, slackers, idlers, strike leaders, and immoral women, lest victory be endangered." While the KKK garnered only several thousand members during the war, white America's fearful, angry mood continued after the Armistice in November 1918, cultivating an environment that was ripe for spreading the Klan's message. Simmons signed a contract in June 1920 with the Southern Publicity Association to market his organization. To its current list of anti-American elements the Klan added "dope, bootlegging, graft, night clubs and road houses, violation of the Sabbath, unfair business dealings, sex, marital 'goings-on,' and scandalous behavior." But as its membership grew, allegedly to as many as five million individuals, so did the Klan's reputation for using violence to achieve its goals.
The Second Klan in Virginia (1915–1944)
In September 1921, the New York World initiated a series, syndicated in papers nationwide, that exposed both the Klan's violence and its shoddy leadership. The U.S. Congress followed with its own investigation. Sales of memberships plummeted and Kleagles, dependent on commissions, revolted. The Klan passed through several months of turmoil before resurfacing in the summer of 1922 with anti-Catholicism as its dominant theme and with growth in the Midwest outstripping that in the South.
In an effort to advance its members' socioeconomic and ethnic views, the Klan turned to politics. In 1925, in addition to supporting a bill that would forbid the teaching of evolution in Virginia schools, the Virginia Klan campaigned against John M. Purcell, the incumbent Democratic state treasurer and a Roman Catholic. Klan members threw their support behind Purcell's Republican opponent, John David Bassett, whom they styled "the 100% candidate." Bassett lost the election, but performed surprisingly well in a state controlled by a very strong Democratic machine. The Klan tried to deny Purcell's reelection bid in 1928 and also opposed Governor Harry F. Byrd's efforts to make several statewide offices, including Purcell's, appointive rather than elective.
Incidents of violence directly and indirectly associated with the Klan after 1925 included kidnappings, floggings, and at least one lynching. In August 1926, a group of fifty masked Klan members forcibly removed Raymond Bird, a black man charged with an offense against two white women, from the Wythe County jail. Encountering little resistance from local authorities, the mob shot Bird, beat him, tortured him, and then lynched him. Appalled, the Richmond Times-Dispatch called upon the citizens of Wytheville to "press for a special grand jury to investigate this attack on law and order." Only one member of the mob, Floyd Willard, was actually charged and tried for his participation in the lynching.
Byrd and other white elites in Virginia were invested in maintaining white supremacy, but they were not fans of the Klan's secretive nature and mob mentality or the violence that ensued from it. According to historian J. Douglas Smith, the Klan "threatened paternalistic notions of noblesse oblige that formed the foundation of Virginia's claim to friendly race relations. In short, elites considered the Klan crass and embarrassing." Caught between Jaffé's fiery editorials and his own desire to preserve white supremacy, Byrd moved with caution and much hesitation. While Byrd ultimately did write what became the Virginia Anti-Lynching Law of 1928—one of the most stringent in the nation—Smith writes that he did so "only after others had convinced him that such a measure would enhance the state's reputation." Whatever the motivation, the Klan's days as a powerful organization in the Commonwealth were numbered.
In 1930, the Washington Post reported a sharp decline in national Klan membership: in Virginia, membership amounted to only 1,593. Responding to this report, Klansmen from Ballston, Potomac, Alexandria, Fredericksburg, Charlottesville, Fairfax, Occoquan, and from Maryland and the District rallied at Alexandria, but only 188 robed members appeared, including the 26-piece Ballston Klan Band. Several Klans continued to meet in Virginia, with Roanoke's Robert E. Lee Klan No. 4 probably the largest and most active of them.
Joel Baskin kept the Klan alive in Virginia through the Great Depression, shifting the organization's focus from anti-Catholicism to anti-Communism. In April 1944, the U.S. Treasury Department sued the national Klan for unpaid back taxes; the Klan settled the case by disbanding. On May 24, 1944, the American Shore Patrol applied for a charter in Virginia. Investigation showed that its head was Joel L. Baskin and, despite its claim to be concerned only with immigration to the United States, it was a cover for his old Klan realm. The American Shore Patrol faded away before Baskin died in 1948.
The Third Klan
The Klan was revived in the 1950s and 1960s to fight against the desegregation of public spaces and to block African Americans' increased efforts to gain full civil rights. Between 1949 and 1952, a number of cross-burnings occurred in Nansemond and Suffolk counties. In the winter of 1952, Bill Hendrix, Grand Dragon of the Florida KKK, confirmed plans to reorganize the Klan in Virginia. The initiative met resistance in March 1953 when the General Assembly passed a bill, recommended by Governor John S. Battle, that prohibited wearing masks and burning crosses in public. Although there were occasional Klan-related incidents—including an August 1955 cross-burning on the front lawn of the home of Oliver Hill, who worked to desegregate public schools—Klan activity did not again become evident in Virginia until the mid-1960s.
In the weeks that followed, the Klan tested Godwin's mettle by holding rallies. But the weight of the political establishment was against them. With desegregation imminent and Virginia's political leadership committed to finding and rooting out the Klan rather than ignoring it, Virginia became inhospitable ground for the Klan to flourish.
Current Klan Activity in Virginia
While the Klan still exists in the twenty-first century, it lacks the cohesion and numbers it once had. In 2007 the Anti-Defamation League reported a resurgence of Klan activity. In 2012, the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks extremism in the United States, identified active klaverns in Abingdon, Powhatan, Martinsville, and Dungannon.
December 1865–June 1866 - Six individuals establish the Ku Klux Klan in the law office of Thomas M. Jones in Pulaski, Tennessee.
April 1868 - The Ku Klux Klan's presence in Virginia diminishes.
May 31, 1870 - The U.S. Congress passes an act to enforce the implementation of the Fifteenth Amendment, which gives African Americans the right to vote.
October 17, 1871 - President Ulysses S. Grant suspends the writ of habeas corpus in nine South Carolina counties to disrupt Ku Klux Klan activity.
1902 - Doubleday, Page & Company publishes Thomas Dixon's The Leopard's Spots.
1905 - Doubleday, Page & Company publishes Thomas Dixon's The Clansman.
December 1915 - D. W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation, a film adaptation of Thomas Dixon's novels celebrating the Ku Klux Klan, opens in Atlanta, Georgia.
Autumn 1920 - Ku Klux Klan salesmen, called Kleagles, fan out across southern states, including Virginia, to recruit members.
September 1921 - The New York World newspaper initiates a nationally syndicated series that exposes both the Ku Klux Klan's violence and its shoddy leadership.
September 1922 - The Anglo-Saxon Clubs of America s formed in Richmond and begins demanding legislation to prohibit marriage between a white person and anyone who has any amount of non-white heritage.
August 1925–November 1925 - In addition to supporting a bill to forbid the teaching of evolution in Virginia schools, the Virginia Ku Klux Klan campaigns against John M. Purcell, the Democratic, Roman Catholic incumbent state treasurer.
September 26, 1926 - Ku Klux Klan members present a flagpole to the College of William and Mary. College president Julian Alvin Carroll Chandler accepts the gift but lectures the Klan on religious liberty and the evils of mob violence.
November 6, 1928 - With the help of the Ku Klux Klan, Herbert Hoover, a Republican, wins the majority vote in Virginia in the presidential election of 1928 over his Democratic opponent, committed anti-Prohibitionist and Catholic Al Smith.
1930 - The Washington Post reports a sharp decline in national Ku Klux Klan membership. In Virginia, membership amounts to only 1,500 individuals.
May 24, 1944 - The American Shore Patrol applies for a charter in Virginia. The organization, headed by former Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon Joel L. Baskin, turns out to be a cover for his former Klan realm.
December 27, 1948 - Joel L. Baskin, former Grand Dragon of Virginia's Ku Klux Klan, dies.
1949–1952 - Numerous cross-burnings occur in Nansemond and Suffolk counties.
Winter 1952 - Bill Hendrix, Grand Dragon of the Florida Ku Klux Klan, confirms plans to reorganize the Klan in Virginia.
March 1953 - The General Assembly passes a bill, recommended by Governor John S. Battle, prohibiting wearing masks and burning crosses in public.
August 10, 1955 - A cross is burned on the front lawn of the Richmond home of civil rights attorney Oliver W. Hill.
Spring 1965 - The United Klans of America send Marshall Kornegay, of North Carolina, to organize Virginia's Ku Klux Klan.
December 1966–1967 - Ku Klux Klan membership and activities in Virginia wane.
2012 - According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Ku Klux Klan klaverns continue to exist in Abingdon, Powhatan, Martinsville, and Dungannon.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Kneebone, J. T. Ku Klux Klan in Virginia. (2012, October 12). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Ku_Klux_Klan_in_Virginia.
- MLA Citation:
Kneebone, John T. "Ku Klux Klan in Virginia." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 12 Oct. 2012. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: August 20, 2012 | Last modified: October 12, 2012
Contributed by John T. Kneebone, associate professor and chair of the history department at Virginia Commonwealth University.