Race & Crime: The Ku Klux Klan’s Hostile and Deadly Reign in America

At the time of the killings, the police special agent in charge of the Klan informant was at the back of the caravan, having trailed it to the site. He did not intervene, or radio for help, or trip a siren, or pursue the killers as nine of their vehicles got away. Arrests occurred only because two police officers broke ranks and apprehended a van. – The 1979 Greensboro Massacre


Sandi Smith (1979 murder victim of the KKK)


Nelson Johnson at the body of Dr. James Waller (1979 murder victim of the KKK)

Race & Crime: The Ku Klux Klan

  • The oldest organized hate group in the United States, dating back more than 135 years.
  • There were 3,959 lynchings of black people in the South between 1877 and 1950 –  at least 700 more lynchings than previously reported.
  • In its early years, the group was considered to be a social organization; however, the KKK soon began to terrorize local freed slaves. Klansmen would don white flowing robes and pointed hats, sometimes cloaking their horses in white sheets as well to affect the appearance of Confederate soldiers risen from the dead, and would raid the homes of blacks in the middle of the night.
  • The Klan hoped to uphold Southern culture and politics as it existed before the Civil War and was willing to take violent measures to succeed.
  • In 1867, the disparate chapters of the Klan, which had taken root throughout Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama, held their first national convention in Nashville and elected as their national leader, or Grand Wizard, General Nathan Bedford Forrest, a former Confederate cavalry leader. This convention established the elaborately named organizational hierarchy, including Grand Cyclops, Magi, and Night Hawks who governed over dominions and dens, and the concept of the Klan as an “invisible empire” was born.
  • The last execution of white men for killing a black person in Alabama had taken place in 1913 when two outlaws were hung for shooting and killing a black cockfighting trainer on a mountain in northern Alabama.
  • The Klan’s “second era” began in 1915, when William J. Simmons, a former minister, resurrected the Klan at Stone Mountain, Georgia—an event marked by a cross burning, soon to become the Klan’s calling card.
  • D. W. Griffith’s 1915 film, Birth of a Nation, which was based on a book by Thomas Dixon called The Clansman(1905) credited the Klan with the preservation of the Southern way of life.
  • The Klan in its second incarnation opposed immigration, mostly of Jews and Catholics, and benefited from a growing Protestant fundamentalism and the patriotic fervor generated by World War I. By the mid-1920s, membership had developed from approximately 10,000 to between 4 and 5 million, and Klan leaders attained high political offices—governors, senators, and representatives.
  • Traveling Klan speakers had become so strongly identified with the organization that their names were not concealed, and even served as a definite crowd-puller for the Klan cause. One such speaker was Rev. Fred Ross of Battle Creek, Michigan, who gave “a rousing address on the principles of the Ku Klux Klan” at the Fremont community building in July 1924.
  • Kleagles were sent into the field on a commission basis, almost indistinguishable from traveling salesmen, for a set percentage of each “Klecktoken” (membership fee) that they managed to solicit. With the signature of each new convert secured, the Klan chain of command operated as a channel to suck profits back to national headquarters in Atlanta. Of the $10 initiation fee paid by each individual recruit, $4 was kept by the Kleagle who signed him up. The remaining $6 was remitted to a King Kleagle (state-level sales manager), who kept $1, sending $5 to the Grand Goblin (district sales manager) of the geographical “Domain” to which he was attached. The Grand Goblin retained $.50, sending $4.50 to the Imperial Kleagle (Edward Young Clarke, the national sales manager) in Atlanta, who in turn kept $2.50 of this, paying the final $2 into the coffers of the Imperial Wizard himself.
  • David C. Stephenson, a Klan leader in the Midwest, was convicted for the rape and mutilation of a woman (Madge Oberholtzer), evidence emerged that led to the indictments of the governor of Indiana and the mayor of Indianapolis, both Klan supporters.
    • Stephenson grabbed the bottom of Madge’s dress and pulled it over her head and she tried unsuccessfully to fight him away. Soon Stephenson stripped her naked and shoved her into the lower berth. He attacked her viciously.  He chewed her all over her body; bit her neck and face; chewed her tongue; chewed her breasts until they bled and chewed her back, her legs, and her ankles.
  • In 1963, Klan members Robert Chambliss, Bobby Frank Cherry, Herman Frank Cash, and Thomas E. Blanton, Jr. bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, in which four girls were killed—an incident widely considered to be the lowest point of the civil rights struggle.
    • Victims
      • Addie Maw Collins
      • Cynthia Wesley
      • Carole Robertson
      • Carol Denise McNair
  • Klan Murders of Civil Rights Activists
    • James Chaney (1964)
    • Andrew Goodman (1964)
    • Michael Schwerner (1964)
    • Viola Liuzzo (1965)
    • Medgar Evans (1963)
  • The FBI added the KKK to the organizations targeted by the FBI’s Cointelpro counterintelligence program. This federal program aimed to “disrupt and neutralize” both left-and right-wing extremist groups. The House Un-American Activities Committee also investigated the Klan.
  • Klansmen killed five anti-Klan demonstrators in Greensboro, North Carolina in 1979. An all-white jury acquitted six Ku Klux Klansmen and three American Nazi Party members today of civil rights violations in the killing of five members of the Communist Workers Party and the wounding of seven others in 1979.
    • Victims
      • Sandi Smith
      • Dr. James Waller
      • Bill Sampson
      • Cesar Cauce
      • Dr. Michael Nathan
  • Klansmen Henry Hays lynched 19 year-old Michael Donald, a black teenager, in Mobile, Alabama in 1981.  Henry Francis Hays was aged 27 on March 21 1981, the day he and an accomplice kidnapped Michael Donald, aged 19, beat him, cut his throat and hung his corpse from a camphor tree.
    • Donald’s mother brought a private prosecution against the Alabama Klan.  In 1987, an all-white jury awarded Beulah Donald $ 7 million ( pounds 4.3 million) in damages and handed over to her the United Klans of America’s “national” headquarters in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. She sold the building for $52,000 which, ultimately, was all she received. The judgment was hailed by civil rights groups as probably having eradicated lynching in Alabama.

  • Barron’s Educational Series Inc., a private publisher of materials to help students prepare for standardized tests, included in its “Barron’s AP European History,” 7th Edition, that lumps conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas with the Ku Klux Klan as “those who want things like they used to be,” and is linked with an arrow to the words “reactionary/fascist.”


  • Indirect Klan Involvement: The Sweet Trials – In 1925, Dr. Ossian and Mrs. Gladys Sweet, an African American couple, moved into an all-white neighborhood in Detroit. Because they expected a violent welcome from the local “improvement” association, the couple armed themselves to defend the home.
    • On September 9, a man that stood amidst an angry mob near the home was shot and killed. The Sweets and nine others in the house were arrested and stood trial. Nevertheless, the Klan clearly supported neighborhood segregation, and the failure of Detroit police to protect the Sweet home during the melee led to claims by the NAACP of heavy and insidious Klan influence in city law enforcement. Detroit’s Catholic mayor, John W. Smith, also publicly declared the KKK guilty of capitalizing on the hostility of such disturbances.
    • Thanks to the skill of Mr. Darrow and the defense team, the trial of the 11 defendants ended in a hung jury. At a second trial, Mr. Henry Sweet – the only defendant who admitted to shooting a gun – was found not guilty. Charges were dropped for the remaining defendants.
  • Like the Waterworks Park Improvement Association that opposed the Sweets, neighborhood organizations sometimes used violence to maintain the status quo, often under the guise of “law and order.”
  • The Southern Poverty Law Center among them, worked successfully against the Klan in the courts, dismantling the United Klans of America in 1987 for the Donald lynching, and, in 1993, the Invisible Empire Knights of the Ku Klux Klan for attacking civil rights activists in Forsyth, Georgia.
  • Arrests of Klan members continued throughout the late 1990s, including an April 1997 arrest of three Klan members for conspiracy to blow up a natural gas refinery in Fort Worth, Texas, and several arrests in February 1998 for plots to poison water supplies, rob banks, plant bombs, and commit assassinations. In July 1998, the Christian Knights of the Ku Klux Klan were found to have participated in a conspiracy to burn a black church.
  • Headed by a new Imperial Wizzard, the Dallas dentist Hiram Evans, the Klan continued to limit its member ship to native-born white Protestant in 1922.
  • African-American reaction, though, was not totally uniform in the 1920s. The NAACP called for the suppression of the Klan but judging from W.E.B. DuBois’ comments (and the lack of comments) in The Crisis, he did not consider the hooded order to be a serious menace. The editors of the socialist Messenger linked the Klan with Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association and warned about the dangers of all forms of extreme nationalism. Most interestingly, African-American newspaper editors spoke with some wariness and with more than a hint of cynicism about the sudden focus on the Klan.
  • The FBI and the KKK; A Critical History: describes how the FBI penetrated the KKK in a manner that often seemed that the FBI was using the KKK in pursuit of its own anti-Civil Rights goals, rather than as part of a serious effort to destroy the organization; how it actively collaborated with Klansmen or Klan-infested police departments to attack minority activists; Klan involvement with the Bureau’s notorious COINTELPRO program; and other aspects of the relationship.




Fox, Craig. Everyday Klansfolk : White Protestant Life and the KKK in 1920s Michigan. East Lansing, MI, USA: Michigan State University Press, 2011. ProQuest ebrary.

Goldberg, D. J.. (1996). Unmasking the Ku Klux Klan: The Northern Movement against the KKK, 1920-1925. Journal of American Ethnic History,15(4), 32–48. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/27502105

Newton, Michael, “The FBI and the KKK; a critical history.” Reference & Research Book News Feb. 2006.Academic OneFile.

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