The original Ku Klux Klan was organized in Pulaski, Tennessee, during the winter of 1865-1866, by six former Confederate army officers (one of whom was Nathan Bedford Forrest). The name came from the Greek word kuklos ("circle"). Although originally started as a fraternal organization, they soon became devoted to white supremacy and fighting the new policies of reconstruction, especially the new political power wielded by Blacks (most people don't know that during reconstruction Black men in the South could vote and run for office). They did this through quasi-legal (passing of unconstitutional laws) and illegal (harrassment, assault, rape, murder) means. Their signature method of intimidation (aside from lynching) was the burning of a cross near the home of a person they wanted to terrorize. With the cooperation of the Mississippi Sovereignty Commission, they were responsible for the destroyed homes, rapes, mutilations and deaths of many activists during the civil rights movement.

While the Klan does still exist, you'll have a much harder time finding them in the South these days (they don't have as much fun since people started fighting back). They mostly seem to have gone out west.

They have a really weird ranking system:
First, the Klan consider themselves an "invisible empire." (That phrase is straight out of their 1867 declaration of principles) Their supreme official is called the Grand Wizard of the Empire and he is assisted by ten Genii. Other principal officials of the Klan are the Grand Dragon of the Realm, assisted by eight Hydras; the Grand Titan of the Dominion, assisted by six Furies; and the Grand Cyclops of the Den, assisted by two Nighthawks.

I would find all of those titles really funny if the KKK wasn't so sickening and frightening.

Minor addendum: I had heard from several civil rights leaders from the '60s that the name Ku Klux Klan was adapted from the sequence of sounds made by loading and cocking a bolt-action rifle:

  1. Ku - the sound of lifting the bolt
  2. Klux - the sound of pulling the bolt back and ejecting the spent cartridge
  3. Klan - the sound of (in one motion) chambering a round by sliding the bolt forward and slapping the bolt down to cock and lock the rifle.

Of course, this may then be a myth. It also might co-exist with the explanation offered by eldritch, above, who appears to have better information than I.

Allegedly, and this comes from no sources other than campus rumors, many fraternities and sororities began as a sort of social club for the sons or daughters of Klansmen.
 


There are several more, but I can't recall them at the moment.

Also highly allegedly, Kappa Delta on my campus (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) wore completely white robes extremely similar to the Klan robes until several years ago.  They had rushed an African-American pledge and decided it would be a very good time to change the robes.

The KKK or Ku Klux Klan is most well known as a group of white men who march around having parades and who hate "blacks", burn crosses, etc.

The organization started around the time of the American Civil War, kind of as a social club of bored civil war veterans. The white gowns and ranks in the order were chosen mostly for fun and to make things silly and fun. They would ride through town and have bizzare initiation rites.

They began with what would amount to pranks. A more well known one was riding up to a black family's house, in full KKK dress and asking for water. Draining the water, by the bucketfull into a hidden tube under their gown, and then thanking them saying they hadn't had a drink since they died at Battle of Shiloh and riding off into the night.

In the summer of 1867 the Klan offically adopted the doctrine of white supremacy and truly began to get violent. The klan then dissapeared by the end of 1869.

The Klan had a huge revival in the early 1900's, just after WWI. While they are widely known for hatred of blacks, less known is that they also hate Jews and Catholics, they are also anti-immigrant- all around a very American institution.

From their own litterature, the cross burning is not meant as a desecration, but is called the lighting of the cross and suposedly follows after an old Scottish tradition. Suposedly it represents light and truth.

They often run into legal battles over whether they can hold parades in certain cities and towns. This often results in them being defended by the ACLU, who defend the KKK's rights to freedom of speech even though their speech is in complete opposition to what the ACLU (see note below) itself stands for.


NOTE:

I have been informed that local ACLU chapters choose who they represent, and so to say that the ACLU as a whole organization is perhaps not entirely correct. I am not sure how much I care so much, Its not exactly a black mark on the ACLU as much as an amusing note about how far they go to protect the Freedom of Speech from well meaning, but potentially dangerous transgressions

Existing nodes address the origins and beliefs of the Ku Klux Klan. That post-American Civil War organization, however, was defunct by 1872, as members retired, or faced legal repercussions for their crimes. Misguided nostalgia and a clever marketing scheme brought back “America’s recurrent nightmare”(Cook) in the 1920s, when it attained a membership of more than three million, influenced elections, and paraded openly before cheering crowds in many American—and a few Canadian—cities.

White southerners in the early twentieth century waxed nostalgically about the antebellum South and the Confederacy, an inclination which would reach its apotheosis in Margaret Mitchell‘s Gone With the Wind. An earlier novel, Thomas Dixon’s The Clansmen (1905), specifically portrayed the Klan as romantic white knights out to protect southern womanhood. In 1915, D. W. Griffith’s used the novel as the basis for his groundbreaking film, The Birth of a Nation. While the film sparked controversy, it proved quite popular. This romance for things that never were, concerns about swelling immigration, and the World War I–inspired wave of exaggerated patriotism combined to make the Klan seem appealing. Enter William J. Simmons, an ex-minister, who saw the opportunity to franchise the old organization. While he undoubtedly shared the beliefs of the original Klan, it is fairly clear that he intended to turn a healthy profit from the sale of memberships and official regalia. These mixed motives were embraced by the Klan’s most tireless promoters during this era, Elizabeth Tyler and Edward Y. Clarke.

The first meeting of the new Klan took place in 1915 on Stone Mountain, Georgia, but the organization quickly spread, and, unlike its Reconstruction predecessor, included at least as many urban as rural members. While its hatred for Afro-Americans remained, the Klan as frequently targeted Jews, Roman Catholics, and immigrants. Wherever they went, the organization’s promoters played up antagonism towards whatever group young white Nativist-types feared.

In some areas, the popularity of the Klan made them something other than an “Invisible Empire,” and members paraded openly in their traditional garb. They also influenced elections. Each Klansmen was encouraged to recruit at least 10 people to vote for a candidate who was a member or known to be sympathetic towards their beliefs. This strategy worked in many cases, but the Klan also faced resistance in some communities.

The Klan’s power has waned since the 1920s. They became visible again during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. In the 1970s and 1980s they targeted Asian immigrants, including the Vietnamese boat people. But dissent and fragmentation has marked their history in recent decades. They have not disappeared, but their beliefs have never received the hearing they had in their heyday.


Like all organizations, various beliefs and suburban myths have clustered their history and origins. Historical sources insist that the unusual name derives from Kuklos, the Greek word for “circle” or “band” and clan, meaning “tribe.”

Fred J. Cook and Jane Steltenpohl. The Ku Klux Klan: America’s Recurring Nightmare. Julian Messner Press: 1989.

"Ku Klux Klan." The Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Ed. 2001 http://www.bartleby.com/65/ku/KuKluxKl.html

"Ku Klux Klan." Reader’s Companion to American History. http://college.hmco.com/history/readerscomp/rcah/html/ah_051100_kukluxklan.htm.

"People and Events: the Rise of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s." The American Experience. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/flood/peopleevents/e_klan.html

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