The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) is a historically violent American organization that has operated in three periods to promote white supremacy and white nationalism and resist immigration. Founded after the Civil War as a secret society by Confederate generals, the First Klan’s primary focus was subverting Republican Reconstruction policies and preventing emancipated African Americans from receiving the benefits of citizenship. Despite its success disrupting black political participation through threats and actual violence, federal government efforts to suppress the Klan in 1870-1871 forced in a major decline in its activities.
The emergence of the United States as an industrial nation, coupled with the influx of immigrants into the country at the turn of the twentieth century, led to a resurgence of the KKK. Racist propaganda fueled its reorganization and appeal to new members. D. W. Griffith’s massively popular 1915 film The Birth of a Nation, set during Reconstruction, is credited with spreading and normalizing the Klan’s racist ideologies. Based on Thomas Dixon’s 1905 novel The Clansman, The Birth of a Nation used white actors in blackface to portray African Americans as lazy, ignorant, and violent. The film suggests that if granted full citizenship, African Americans would abuse it and threaten the security and “purity” of the white race. It positions the First Klan as the protectors of whiteness.
Officially reorganized as a fraternal organization in 1915, the Second Klan paid full-time recruiters and operated in every state from a national headquarters. At the peak of its popularity in 1924-5, the organization claimed four to five million men as members, or about fifteen percent of the nation's eligible population. It espoused nativist ideologies, discriminated against any group it deemed “un-American,” and supported the culture of Jim Crow segregation with threats and violent acts, such as lynchings. The Second Klan was the KKK’s period of greatest popularity and centralized organization, which lasted until 1944. Today classified as a terrorist organization, the Third and current Klan began in independent local groups in 1946 to oppose the Civil Rights Movement, but its membership numbers remain much lower at 5,000-8,000.