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The Ku Klux Klan initially rose in the south during Reconstruction in the years following the Civil War by groups of angry conservative white men.
The Klan was initially formed in 1866 in Tennessee. Since "klan" is similar to "clan", to members it meant a "circle of brothers." In March 1867, with the federal passage of the Military Reconstruction Acts, and the prospect of voting rights for blacks, the Klan became more than a social circle, it became a political organization. According to the New Georgia Encyclopedia, "From 1868 through the early 1870s, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) functioned as a loosely organized group of political and social terrorists. The Klan's goals included the political defeat of the Republican Party and the maintenance of absolute white supremacy in response to newly gained civil and political rights by southern blacks after the Civil War."
This era, which encompassed terrorism and murder, is referred to as the First Ku Klux Klan, and it faded away in the early 1870s as their Democratic candidates triumphed in the south, Jim Crow laws secured white domination, and there was very aggressive federal intervention of the Klan in 1871 and 1872. Some small local Klan groups continued as backwoods rifle clubs, but they lost their political clout and legitimacy.
The KKK sprang to life again in the 1920s, reinvented in 1915 in Georgia by William J. Simmons, an ex-minister and all round rabble rouser, and it spread throughout the country like wildfire, with its tentacles reaching well into Michigan, including in the metropolitan Detroit area. At that time, the KKK broadened its hatred to include not only blacks, but Jews, Catholics, Poles, Italians and Irish, the lower economic immigrant groups of the day, which explains its wider appeal.
Its attraction fed into the militant patriotism that had been aroused by World War I, and it stressed fundamentalism in religion. In the mid-1920s, when Klan membership was at its peak, it is estimated there were 4 to 5 million who belonged. It is also the only time when there was one singular Klan, Potok said, united as one Ku Klux Klan group with its headquarters in Atlanta.
"In every other era, including today, there is no one 'the' Klan. There are 27 different Klans, run by 27 different guys," Potok said. "Only in the second era Klan was it unitary."
While Detroit was a station on the Underground Railroad and a meeting place for leading abolitionists, it was also a strong KKK stronghold in the early and mid-20th century. The Great Migration of the 1920s, when southern blacks moved to northern cities for jobs, filled Detroit with rural blacks in addition to European immigrants. Some referred to Detroit of that time as the "most southern" of northern cities....continued on page 6