Arising from the economic and social disorganization in the wake of the Civil War, six veterans of the Confederate army organized a small social club or fraternity. Their meeting took place in the summer of 1866, in the law office of Judge Thomas M. Jones of Pulaski, Tennessee. Initially organized for amusement purposes only, six former soldiers essentially engaged in horseplay, wearing disguises and riding their horses around town after dark. Finding that their actions frightened former and often superstitious slaves in the area, the members of the Pulaski Klan, thought to be ghosts of dead Confederate soldiers, heightened their activities in an attempt to restore the former plantation system. The idea of frightening former slaves back to work attracted numerous new members, resulting in the spread and rapid expansion of the Ku Klux Klan.
Relatively non-violent in nature, the Ku Klux Klan, under the leadership of Forrest, grew and transformed considerably following the passage of the Reconstruction Acts of March-July 1867. In fact, harassment, intimidation, and murder became more commonplace, as northern teachers, judges, politicians, carpetbaggers, and Freedmen were targeted indiscriminately. Louisiana was no exception, as conservative whites organized into a number of secret paramilitary organizations.
Hoping to elect Democrat Horatio Seymour over Republican candidate Ulysses S. Grant, Louisiana white paramilitary organizations, initiated a campaign of terror against Freedmen never before witnessed in Louisiana. Given that blacks outnumbered whites almost 3 to 1 in Northwest Louisiana, controlling the black majority and securing the Democratic vote took on increasing importance for these groups.
Historically, violence was nothing new to residents of Northwestern Louisiana. Shreveport was minimally affected by the Civil War and briefly served as the capital of Confederate Louisiana. Area whites never really felt defeated and very much despised the Reconstruction policies of the Federal government. Despite victories in Louisiana and six other states, Seymour and Blair lost to Grant and Colfax. Briefly returning in 1874, white on black violence fell sharply in Northwestern Louisiana. Relatively quiet for almost forty years, the “Ku Klux” movement returned with a vengeance in the 1920’s.
Spreading rapidly throughout the South, the Ku Klux Klan reentered Louisiana and began organizing a chapter in New Orleans in November of 1920. The chapter’s name was Old Hickory Klan Number One and consisted of lawyers, politicians and doctors. Approximately one week later, Shreveport Klan Number Two was established. Given its rural nature and the large number of protestant whites, Shreveport became the state headquarters of the Louisiana Klan. As the Klan spread throughout the state, most members became increasingly unconcerned with the national aims of the Ku Klux Klan. In general, the Louisiana Klan, at this time, was not concerned with immigration, the Jewish problem, or white supremacy, and thought of themselves as more of a moralistic law enforcement agency. The Klan took it upon them to clean up society and punish bootleggers, moonshiners, vagrants, and gamblers.
The Invisible Empire was at its strongest both politically and in sheer numbers. Louisiana alone boasted 25,000 to 30,000 members. After climaxing in 1924, the Invisible Empire as a whole began to crumble. Whether it was due to violent acts resulting in a poor public image or dissension among members, the 1920’s Klan eventually broke into several competing independent realms. Klan membership in Louisiana alone dropped below 3,000 members. Nonetheless, as the 1970’s approached, a handsome, young, intelligent, and motivated Louisianan, fought to improve the image of the Klan.
David Duke, Louisiana State University graduate and Imperial Wizard and instigator of the 1974 revival of the KKK, once stated that “We’ve got to get out of the cow pasture and into the hotel meeting rooms”. Understanding the value of media, Duke participated in television, radio, and magazine interviews. He recruited on college campuses and even allowed women and Catholics to become members. Under his leadership, Klan membership rose and boasted a national membership of 3,500 people. Nevertheless, despite Duke’s attempt to revive the organization to its former 1920’s glory, scandals, violence, and differences in ideology continued to decimate the Klan. Currently, there are approximately 18 white hate organizations operating in Louisiana. This includes five neo-Nazi groups, one Christian Identity group, one neo-Confederate group, six White Nationalist groups, and five Ku Klux Klan groups. Pushing a victimization agenda, principal concerns include a fear that whites are becoming a numerical minority and a fear that whites are losing social authority and power.
Today’s Klan uses the Internet to spread messages of hate and violence, gather and share information, and recruit new members. Clearly, the nearly 150 year violent history of the Ku Klux Klan, points to the need to remain vigilant in understanding the ideologies and actions of these groups.