Origins of the First Klan (ca. 1866–1874)
The first Klan was born after the(1861–1865) in the law office of Judge Thomas M. Jones in Pulaski, Tennessee, sometime between December 1865 and June 1866. It was founded by six Confederate veterans: James Crowe, Richard Reed, Calvin Jones (Thomas Jones’s son), John Lester, Frank McCord, and John Kennedy. The Pulaski Six, as they came to be known, allegedly formed the organization for amusement and to break the boredom of their small town. However, as Reconstruction policies took effect between 1865 and 1877, allowing African Americans to become more active in southern political, economic, and social life, local cells of the Klan, called klaverns, formed throughout the south and took on a different role. According to historian Eric Foner, the Klan went from being an amusement activity to “a military force serving the interests of the , the planter class, and all those who desired the restoration of white supremacy.”
Although the first Klan was less centralized than the second, explains Foner, it effectively aimed “to destroy the‘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
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 the town of Warrenton and Lee 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
The larger Klan collapsed in the early 1870s, in part because between 1870 and 1874 the U.S. Congress passed a series of laws limiting the organization’s activity. The first Enforcement Act, passed on May 31, 1870, enforced the implementation of the, which gave African Americans the right to vote. Provoked by that act, Klan violence only intensified during the elections of 1870. In response, Congressman and former Union general drafted what came to be known as the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871. The act made it illegal for two or more people to conspire with the intent to someone else and gave the president the power to use military force and to suspend the writ of habeas corpus in order to quell any civil disturbance that threatened a person’s or persons’ constitutional rights.
On October 17, 1871, Presidentsuspended 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.
The second Klan gained much from the mythologized legacy of the first. This mythology portrayed Klan members as chivalric defenders of civilization and gentility and had been percolating in white America’s imagination during the years following the first Klan’s demise, thanks in part to popular fiction. Before 1915, no work was as powerful in spreading the myth of the Klan as that of novelist Thomas Dixon Jr., a sometime resident of Northampton County. Dixon dramatized white supremacy and the heroism of the first Klan in several bestselling novels including The Leopard’s Spots (1902) and The Clansman (1905), the latter of which Dixon adapted as a play. His romanticized view of the Klan sold so well that his novels, particularly The Clansman, helped to establish Doubleday, Page & Company as a major publishing house. But the apotheosis of Dixon’s work came in 1915 with the opening of D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation. A film adaptation of The Clansman and The Leopard’s Spots, Birth of a Nation became one of the most powerful pieces of pro-Klan propaganda. After a private screening of the film, Presidentallegedly claimed that it was like “writing history with lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so true.” Whether Wilson said this or not, the quote was used to endorse and market the film and the Klan.
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 the fall of 1920, Klan salesmen, called Kleagles, fanned out across southern states, including Virginia, to recruit members. During this time‘s Richmond Planet and P. B. Young Sr.‘s Norfolk Journal and Guide reported on and condemned the Klan, like much of the Black press in other states. White journalists of the Richmond News Leader and of the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot agreed that the Klan’s vigilante reputation merited condemnation. When the Klan started recruiting from Virginia’s smaller cities and towns in 1921, however, that reputation became a selling point. That summer, placards warning “Gamblers, Bootleggers, High-Speeders, Thieves, Crooks, Houses of Ill Fame and Proprietors” to leave town announced the arrival of Klan recruiters in Farmville and other localities. Reports of lynchings in Texas and other states confirmed the Klan’s vigilante appeal.
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.
Events in Richmond during this period determined the fate of the Klan in Virginia. From its founding, Richmond Klan No. 1 had an anti-Catholic faction, and when respectable local officers followed the New York World‘s revelations of the Klan’s disreputable leadership by suspending payments to Klan headquarters in Atlanta, the local unit split, with the anti-Catholics remaining loyal. The officers’ faction soon reconstituted itself as Anglo-Saxon Club No. 1 and under the leadership ofand John Powell backed agitation for a that would protect whiteness against the threats that immigration and miscegenation purportedly posed. Klan loyalists took the Anglo-Saxon Club to court to regain their records, hoods, and robes. In response, members of the Club charged that the Klan, a Georgia corporation, had failed to register with the State Corporation Commission and was thus operating illegally in Virginia. The Klan was fined fifty dollars and nearly two years passed without official Klan organizing in Virginia.
By summer 1924, when newspapers reported renewed Klan activities in Virginia, national Klan leadership was on shaky ground. Hiram Wesley Evans had overthrown Simmons and assumed the role of Imperial Wizard. Evans was soon at loggerheads with David Clarke Stephenson, the powerful Grand Dragon of Indiana, where the Klan’s growth and power were unrivaled. Despite infighting on the national stage, by 1925 nearly sixty local Klan units had formed in Virginia from the Eastern Shore to the Appalachians, with all the state’s cities represented. According to Chalmers, the “centers of Klan strength in the Old Dominion lay in a series of growing, industrializing cities, most notably Norfolk, Newport News, Portsmouth, Lynchburg, Danville, Hopewell, and Roanoke.” It was through these cities that such commodities as coal, seafood, lumber,, and manufactured goods were shipped and marketed, and in these cities’ factories that Blacks and whites competed for the jobs to package, mill, and refine these goods. Klan membership in these areas became, in Chalmers’s words, “second only to church.”
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. The Klan tried to deny Purcell’s reelection bid in 1928 and also opposed Governor ‘s efforts to make several statewide offices, including Purcell’s, appointive rather than elective.
The Virginia Klan received its charter as a Klan realm in 1925, and Joel L. Baskin, a native of Mississippi, moved to Richmond to lead the realm as Grand Dragon. With Baskin at the helm, Klan activities in Virginia increased. In August 1925, unmasked Klansmen and Klanswomen from Lynchburg marched in Washington, D.C., alongside more than 30,000 other Klan members from across the country. In September 1926, 5,000 Klansmen and the Imperial Wizard himself presented a flagpole to the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg. College president Julian Alvin Carroll Chandler accepted the gift but used the occasion to deliver a pointed lecture on the virtues of religious liberty and the evils of mob violence. In fact, it was the increase in Klan-related violence more than anything else that lessened the Klan’s popularity in the Commonwealth.
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.
A few weeks later, on September 1, 1926, six hooded men kidnapped and interrogated Father Vincent Warren, a Catholic priest who taught Black children in Princess Anne County. There was an outcry of support for the priest as the public pressured the Byrd administration to bring Warren’s assailants to justice. But despite support from Louis Jaffé, who criticized the inactivity of local authorities in his editorials in the Norfolk Virginian-Pilot, nothing substantive was done beyond the passage of a local anti-mask ordinance. Jaffé resolved to pressure Governor Byrd to put forward a state anti-lynching law.
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—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, 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, 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 , who worked to —Klan activity did not again become evident in Virginia until the mid-1960s.
In the spring of 1965, the United Klans of America sent Marshall Kornegay of North Carolina to organize in Virginia. The state had only an estimated 2,000 active Klan members in 1966 and much less Klan activity than in states to the south, but enough for the Richmond and Norfolk offices of the Federal Bureau of Investigation to keep a close watch. In the fall of 1966, unidentified individuals bombed an African American church in Richmond. Because the incident “smacked of ‘Klan-like’ activity,” civil rights groups such as the Virginia chapter of the NAACP pressured Governorto officially condemn the Klan. In December he finally did, singling out cross-burning as a “reprehensible” act “long associated with the record of bigotry compiled by the Ku Klux Klan” that “must be stamped out.”
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.