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First KKK

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First KKK

If the federal government would not allow the use of Black Codes to maintain White supremacy in the South, a terrorist group decided to take the matter outside of the law. The first Ku Klux Klan was a loose organization dedicated to political violence against freedmen and Republicans in the South after the Civil War. The organization committed terrible acts across the South which influenced the political landscape. Eventually, the organization began to fade and was then mostly eradicated by federal actions.

A black and white drawing of members fo the Ku Klux Klan StudySmarterMembers of the First KKK/Wikimedia Commons

Origin of the KKK

Originally, the Ku Klux Klan was a social club. The club was founded on December 24, 1865, in Pulaski, Tennessee. The initial organizer of the group was a man named Nathan Bedford Forest. The original members had all been Confederate army veterans.

Nathan Bedford Forrest

Nathan Bedford Forrest was a Confederate army general during the Civil War. Forrest was known for his success in leading cavalry troops. A particularly notable act in his role as Confederate general was the slaughtering of Black Union soldiers who had already surrendered. After the Civil War, he was a planter and railroad president. He was the first man to take on the highest title in the KKK, Grand Wizard.

Naming the KKK

The group's name was loosely derived from two languages foreign to the White Southerners who made up the group. Ku Klux is believed to have come from the Greek word "kyklos", which means circle. The other word was the Scottish-Gaelic word “clan", which denoted a kinship group. Together, "Ku Klux Klan" was meant to mean a circle, ring or band of brothers.

A black and white photograph of Nathan Bedford Forrest StudySmarterNathan Bedford Forrest/Wikimedia Commons

Organization of the KKK

The KKK was only loosely organized at higher levels across state boundaries. The lowest level was ten-person cells comprised of white men who owned a good horse and a gun. Above the cells were Giants who nominally controlled the individual cells at the county level. Above the Giants were the Titans who had limited control of all of the Giants in a Congressional district. Georgia had a state leader known as the Grand Dragon and the Grand Wizard was the leader of the entire organization.

At a meeting in Tennessee in 1867, the plan was hatched to create local KKK chapters across the South. There were attempts to create a more organized and hierarchical version of the KKK but they never came to fruition. The KKK chapters remained very independent. Some pursued violence not just for political ends but simply for personal grudges.

Radical Reconstruction

Congress passed Reconstruction Acts in 1867 and 1868. These acts sent federal troops to occupy parts of the South and protect the rights of Black people. Many White Southerners were outraged. Most Southerners had lived their entire lives under a system of white supremacy. Radical Reconstruction was aimed at creating equality, which many White Southerners strongly resented.

KKK Begins Violence

The members of the KKK had largely been veterans of the Confederate army. The idea of racial equality was unacceptable to these men who had fought a war to preserve White Supremacy and human enslavement in the South. As freedmen tried to advance their way into the social and political life of the South, this upset to the existing order felt threatening to many White southerners. As a result, the social club known as the Ku Klux Klan transformed itself into a violent paramilitary group, waging guerrilla warfare and intimidation in support of White Supremacy.

KKK tactics involved dressing in white sheets ghost costumes and riding on horseback at night. Initially, much of this activity was aimed primarily at intimidation as a form of amusement for the members. The group quickly grew increasingly violent.

Political Violence

Much of the most effective violence committed by the KKK was political in nature. Their targets were Black people exercising their right to vote or hold office and White Republican voters and politicians who supported racial equality. The violence even reached the level of assassinating Republican political figures.

Social Violence

The KKK found less success with social violence than they did with political violence. Although Black churches and schools were burned, the community managed to rebuild them. Tired of intimidation, members of the community fought back against the violence.

An illustration of two Ku Klux Klan members circa 1868 from Harper's Weekly StudySmarterTwo Members of the KKK/Wikimedia Commons

KKK in Georgia

Georgia was an epicenter of KKK violence. The organization's terror tactics caused a major political shift in the state in less than one year. Elections occurred throughout the year in Georgia and the results were heavily impacted by the actions of the KKK. What happened in Georgia is not totally unique but it is a strong example of the actions and impact of the KKK.

Republican Wins in Georgia, 1968

In April of 1868, Republican Rufus Bullock won the state's gubernatorial election. Georgia elected the Original 33 in the same year. They were the first 33 Black people to be elected to the Georgia State Assembly.

KKK intimidation in Georgia, 1868

As a response, the KKK conducted some of their strongest violence and intimidation yet. On March 31, a Republican political organizer named George Ashburn was murdered in Columbus, Georgia. Beyond intimidating Black people and Republicans, KKK members even harassed soldiers guarding a polling place in Columbia County. 336 murders and assaults against newly freed Black people took place from the beginning of the year through the end middle of November.

Georgia Political Shift in 1868

In Columbia County, where 1,222 people had voted for Republican Rufus Bullock, only a single vote was recorded for the Republican presidential nominee. Statewide, Democratic presidential nominee Horatio Seymour won over 64% of the vote. By the end of the year, the Original 33 had been forced out of the Georgia State Assembly.

End of the First Ku Klux Klan

When Democrats secured victories across the South in the 1870 mid-term elections, the political goals of the KKK had been largely achieved. The Democratic Party of the time had already begun to distance itself from the KKK due to its reputation. Without the perceived outrage of radical reconstruction to drive membership, the group began to lose steam. By 1872 the membership numbers had dropped significantly. In 1871, the federal government began to seriously crack down on KKK activity and many were jailed or fined.

An illustration of KKK members whp had been arrested in 1872 from Harper's Ferry StudySmarterKKK Members Arrested in 1872/Wikimedia Commons

Ku Klux Klan Act

In 1871, Congress passed the Ku Klux Klan Act which gave President Ulysses S. Grant authorization to directly pursue the KKK. Grand juries were convened and the remnants of the loose network were largely stamped out. The act used federal agents to arrest members and tried them in federal courts which were not as sympathetic to their cause as local Southern Courts.

By 1869, even its creator thought things had gone too far. Nathan Bedford Forrest tried to disband the organization but its loose structure made doing so impossible. He felt that the disorganized violence linked to it had started to undermine the political goals of the KKK.

Later Revivals of the Ku Klux Klan

In the 1910s-20s, the KKK experienced a revival during a time of heavy immigration. In the 1950s-60s, the group experienced a third wave of popularity during the Civil Rights movement. The KKK still exists today.

First KKK - Key takeaways

  • A terrorist organization dedicated to political and social violence after the Civil War
  • Sought to stop Black Americans and Republicans from voting
  • Organized by Nathan Bedford Forrest
  • Faded away during the early 1870s after Democratic political victories lowered membership numbers then federal prosecutions began

Frequently Asked Questions about First KKK

Nathan Bedford Forrest was the first Grand Wizard of the KKK.

The KKK was founded on December 24, 1865. 

The group was originally formed as a social club. 

The first KKK members were Confederate army veterans organized by Nathan Bedford Forrest 

The first KKK largely disappeared during the 1870s. However, the group has been revived several times and a current version does still exist. 

Final First KKK Quiz


When the first Ku Klux Klan begin to die out?

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What did "Ku Klux Klan" roughly mean?

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A band of brothers

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What political party did the first Ku Klux Klan support?

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The first Ku Klux Klan was a tighly organized group with strict, top-down control

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What was the title of the overall leader of the KKK?

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The Grand Wizard

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How many Black people were assaulted or murdered in election violence in Georgia in 1866?

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What did the Ku Klux Klan Act do?

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Gave the federal government authority to pursue the group

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Who were the first Ku Klux Klan members?

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Confederate army veterans

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Where was the Ku Klux Klan founded?

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Who founded the KKK?

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Nathan Bedford Forrest 

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