U.S. History/KKK now and then


Hello, My group  and I are working together to create a documentary about the KKK. We would like to ask you some questions about them to use for research
1.What kickstarted the first KKK from being a support group for southerners into a radical hate group?

2.Why has public opinion changed about the KKK so much? For example they had huge political influence during its first incarnation but they are looked down upon in modern times.

3. What are the causes for the split of the KKK into smaller factions in the modern day?

4. What are the motivations for the KKK in both modern times and the past?

Thanks in advance. If you want to add additional insight feel free.

1.  The KKK did not really start as a "support group".  It began after the Civil War in Tennessee.  Even at that time it was involved in violence and terrorism.  The South was occupied by Northern armies during reconstruction.  White southerners wanted to keep the newly freed slaves in a servile role.  The KKK was used to keep the former slaves in that role through the use of terror and fear.  Many blacks were killed or beaten during this time.  After reconstruction ended, southern whites took control of local governments again and did not need groups like the KKK to carry out their policies against black people.  So the KKK disbanded.

The group's second iteration came about after the release of the 1915 movie "Birth of a Nation" which celebrated the earlier Klan as a heroic organization protecting women and children from northerners and blacks.  The new KKK became a huge nationwide organization which included millions of members, including politicians, police, and judges.  This group as strongly committed to segregation of the races and keeping white people in a position superior to blacks.  It was also strongly anti-immigrant and in favor of Protestant Christianity (anti-Catholic & anti-Jewish).  It also took many other political positions, including support for prohibition.  During this time it still used violence and murder to intimidate blacks and others who sought to help blacks, immigrants or other "outsiders."  But it was not considered a radical group.  It made up a sizable component of the Democratic Party.  Many of its members were well established and respected community leaders.

The third iteration developed in the 1970's when the KKK became a variety of localized hate groups, generally considered criminal organizations which continued to oppose anti-discrimination laws and desegregation.  These groups continued to use violence against minorities and other opponents, but they were much smaller and less powerful than earlier versions.

2. When the group was very popular, it was because it reflected thew views of a large portion of the country.  In the early 20th Century, the US was a much more racist place.  The term racism gets used in many different ways, so it may be best to define it as I use the term.  Racism at the time generally meant the belief that one group of people, or one "race" was superior to others.  That other races were incapable of reaching the levels of advancement held by the superior race.  It did not necessarily means the racist hated other races or was violent against them.  It simply meant they did not believe that blacks and whites had equal capacities and abilities, regardless of upbringing, education, or environment.  Because this belief in racism was so widely held, even among society's elites, the KKK was seen as a respectable organization designed to help maintain the system where blacks were kept in a subservient role through violence and intimidation.  This supplemented racist laws and other practices designed to limit black power and influence in society.

Public opinion changed in the late 20th century as people largely began to reject racism.  It became much more commonly believed that blacks and whites were inherently equal.  That with the same environment and upbringing both groups were equally capable of succeeding and attaining advanced abilities.  With racism as I defined it above largely having ended, the KKK ideas of using violence to keep black people suppressed became further out of the mainstream.

I want to make clear, that when I say racism largely ended, I am talking specifically about the belief that one race is superior to another.  I am not saying that racial prejudice has ended, or that people often still treat other races differently.  That is still a very real problem today.  But most people generally today no longer hold the belief that black people are inherently incapable of learning and attaining the same levels of advancement as while people.

3. The split of the KKK into smaller facts is the result of several lawsuits against the KKK in the 1970's.  A number of victims sued the KKK for acts of violence done by its members.  All of the assets of the larger organization were taken away by the courts.  The group was forced to disband.  The newer version of the KKK were by groups that continued to use the KKK name, but were entirely different organizations.  The group could not exist any longer as an established nationwide organization because it would continue to face liability from lawsuits.   As separate groups, the acts of one could not bring down all of them.

4. Throughout its existence, the goal of the KKK has been to support a way of life where white protestant people hold a leading role in society, exerting control over minorities and keeping separate and apart from those who are different from them.  Its willingness to use violence and murder to attain these goals in opposition to law government policy has been consistent, but less of a focus during the early 20th century when much of the law and public opinion was already on its side.

- Mike  

U.S. History

All Answers

Answers by Expert:

Ask Experts


Michael Troy


I can answer just about any question on early American History. My specialties are the American Revolution through the Civil War/Reconstruction. I also have greater expertise in matters relating to military, political or legal history.


I have lectured at George Washington University regarding the Civil War, as well as several elementary school Civil War demonstrations. I was also a member of a Civil War reenactment group for about 10 years.


J.D. University of Michigan B.A. George Washington University

Awards and Honors
Truman Scholar

©2016 About.com. All rights reserved.