This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Ku Klux Klan’s founding. At its height, the KKK boasted an estimated 5 million members and dominated politics across the South. Many Klan members openly engaged in domestic terrorism and made bombings, lynchings and flaming crosses a fact of life for decades.
Today, there are only about 6,000 self-described Klansmen across the country, according to estimates from the Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center. Although some white supremacists still burn crosses at night while wearing hooded robes, we should stop referring to these groups as the Ku Klux Klan.
How we speak about hate groups matters. Modern fringe groups have used myths about the KKK to successfully market themselves as the organization of the past. By allowing new hate groups to co-opt the Ku Klux Klan’s legacy of power, we leave open the possibility that America’s deadliest hate group will rise again.
Three white supremacy movements have used the Ku Klux Klan name since its founding 150 years ago. The first Ku Klux Klan began in Tennessee after the Civil War. The loosely organized social group quickly evolved into a domestic terrorist organization in response to southern blacks gaining civil and political rights.
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The first Ku Klux Klan only lasted a few years. According to the New Georgia Encyclopedia, Democratic electoral wins and heavy federal intervention weakened the Klan’s organizational structure, causing it to fade away in the 1870s.
The second Ku Klux Klan was founded in 1915. It is widely believed that the second Klan was inspired by the popular film “Birth of a Nation,” which portrayed the original KKK as a heroic force in U.S. history.
After starting as a small group, the second KKK grew into a highly organized national operation that became heavily involved in politics, particularly in the south. The Federal Bureau of Investigation estimates that the second Ku Klux Klan had several million members by the early 1920s.
In September 1922, the governor of Louisiana asked for federal intervention because local authorities refused to prosecute Klansmen for rampant criminal activity. According to FBI archives, this letter prompted the federal authorities to heavily investigate the Klan and caused many agents to become targets of Klansmen. One FBI memo from November 1922 details an elaborate Klan plot to kill FBI agents investigating crimes in Mer Rouge, La. The plot was reportedly devised by the U.S. Attorney in Shreveport, who was a Klansman.
By 1930, a combination of high-profile leadership scandals and prosecutions caused Klan membership to plummet to approximately 30,000. The formal Ku Klux Klan organization lingered until the mid 1940s and then faded out of existence, according to FBI records.
The third (and modern) Ku Klux Klan movement is a series of fragmented white supremacist groups that arose during the civil rights era of the 1950s and 1960s. The Southern Poverty Law Center estimates that there are 5,000 to 8,000 active Klan members “split between different — and often warring — organizations that use the Klan name.”
Continuing to describe these white supremacy groups as the Ku Klux Klan implies an organizational unity that does not exist and creates a misleading link to the powerful KKK organization of the 1920s. The modern Ku Klux Klan is not a cohesive organization, but rather a brand name used by fringe white supremacy groups that share a common set of fraternal practices and symbols originating from historical KKK movements.
The range of beliefs among KKK-affiliated groups is very diverse and localized. A few active KKK groups are still domestic terrorist organizations. Other groups such as The United Dixie White Knights and The Knights of the Ku Klux Klan claim on their websites to be non-violent political organizations that advocate for advancing the rights of white Christian Protestants. Some Klan groups are still focused on the perceived danger from African-Americans, whereas others interviewed by the Associated Press for a recent report were preoccupied with the perceived threat of immigration. Some groups associate with Neo-Nazis, others don’t.
The lack of unity among today’s Klan groups makes it impossible to identify a coherent agenda. The fragmentation also makes it easy for local leaders to disassociate themselves with statements and actions made by other self-described Klansmen.
Instead of pretending the Ku Klux Klan still exists as a national organization, we should treat today’s self-described Klan groups like the fringe local entities that they are. I propose we use the prefix “neo-” to help make the distinction, just as the term “neo-Nazi” is used to describe American groups that use the symbolism of Germany’s Nazi party.
By preventing today’s neo-KKK groups from invoking the legacy of the Ku Klux Klan, we can stop this boogeyman from using a historic brand of horror to build itself into a new terrorist organization.
Dennis Jansen is a newsletter editor for The Dallas Morning News.