Ku Klux Klan: Origins and Some Unknown Facts

From the Lecture Series: The Real History of Secret Societies

By Richard Spence, Ph.D., University of Idaho

Secret societies played a significant role in American history. Some of them have disappeared, some of them have re-emerged under different names, and some are still around today. One of the most famous American secret societies was the Ku Klux Klan, which has some unknown aspects, even though it seems there is no more to be revealed.

A black and white photo of three Ku Klux Klan members at a 1922 parade.
A Ku Klux Klan parade in Virginia in 1922. (Image: National Photo Company Collection/Public domain)

The Golden Age of Secret Societies in America

Secret societies in America abounded with hundreds of lodges, mystical orders, and fraternal organizations. Most of these societies, which included both national and local ones, appeared from 1890 to 1930, a period known as the “Golden Age of Fraternalism”. At the beginning of the 20th century, it was estimated that a third of American men and a high number of women were the members of an oath-bound society. During the 1920s, 40% of the adult population belonged to these orders. The number of lodge brothers in the United States was more than those in all other countries in the world combined. Half of the Freemasons in the world were in the US, and millions of others belonged to Odd Fellows, Red Men, and Woodmen of the World, Knights of Columbus, B’nai B’rith, Elks, Owls, Eagles, and the Moose. There were wide varieties of ethnic, class, and religious flavors, promoting political and social causes, including prohibition, white supremacy, and black separatism.

Learn more about the Knights Templar.

Ku Klux Klan and its Pointed Hood

Of these groups, the most powerful secret society at that time was the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), which experienced the peak of its growth in the 1920s. It claimed to have 10 million members, which was probably double the real number. Still, the KKK was the largest and the most powerful order. (In 1925, 25,000 members of the KKK paraded down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington.) Although the KKK has been widely written about and studied, their inspirations and influences are still unknown to many.

Ku Klux Klan members march down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., in 1928.
In 1925, 25,000 members of the KKK paraded down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington. (Image: National Archives and Records Administration / Public domain)

For example, why were they so obsessed with the letter K and have strange-sounding names? Where did the white robes and pointy hoods, called capirotes, come from? Capirotes were used in medieval Spain by the same secret societies that spawned the Penitentes. They are still worn in holy week celebrations in some parts of Spain like Seville.

Long experience combating heresies, such as the medieval Cathars, made the Catholic church suspicious of lay organizations, especially those that met in secret. So, in the 14th century, Pope Clement VI penalized participation in such groups. In turn, their members adopted the masked capirote, or hood, to hide their identities. Inquisition enforcers retaliated by forcing those caught to wear a faceless capirote—we’d recognize that today as the dunce cap.

This is a transcript from the video series The Real History of Secret Societies. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Ku Klux Klan: Origin and Growth

The original KKK did not choose the pointed hood or white robes as its ritual attire. Nor did they burn crosses. Six ex-Confederate officers in Pulaski, Tennessee, founded the original KKK in 1865. Because the original purpose of the KKK is not known, there have been many speculations in this regard, including carrying on the Confederate cause or “good ol’ boy” hell-raising. Its original rules were based on those of two defunct orders: the Sons of Malta and Kuklos Adelphon. And this is where the name comes from: Kuklos, which means “circle” in ancient Greek, morphed into Ku Klux. The strange names and costumes were also inspired by the Sons of Malta and Kuklos Adelphon, which were influenced by Mardi Gras traditions in New Orleans and Alabama.

Others have suggested that the KKK was an offshoot of the Knights of the Golden Circle or KGC. It was an older and more secret society that appeared in the 1850s and promoted the preservation of slavery through southern secession.   

Learn more about masonic revolutions in America and France.

The Knights of the Golden Circle

Originating in the Midwest, the Knights of the Golden Circle (KGC) was the brainchild of a Cincinnati physician named George Bickley. It envisioned a slavery-based empire covering Mexico, parts of South of America, and the Caribbean Islands. It had a prominent role in the invasion of New Mexico by the Confederates during the Civil War. Also, they were involved in the violent guerrilla war in Missouri.

Two famous members of the KGC were Frank and Jesse James. It is also suggested the KGC had conspired to kill or kidnap Abraham Lincoln. His assassinator, John Wilkes Booth, was a KGC member, which suggested the KGC was involved in Lincoln’s assassination.

KGC Connection and the End of Ku Klux Klan

There are claims that the Klan was an “appendant body” of Freemasonry. Everyone’s favorite evil masonic mastermind, Confederate general Albert Pike, was allegedly the “dark influence” behind the KKK and Knights of the Golden Circle. But Pike’s membership in either society is unsubstantiated. Then there’s the argument that the first Ku Klux Klan was mostly a fantasy created by frustrated federal military commanders, and nervous Republican governors who were unable to control the violence sweeping the post-war South. But there was plenty of score-settling and random killing to go around. The original Klan lacked any coherent organization or leadership. Its name was freely appropriated by common criminals and feuding neighbors alike. The KKK’s Grand Wizard Nathan Bedford Forrest became so disgusted by the mess that he quit in 1869.

Organized or not, the original KKK sparked the first anti-terror legislation in US history. In 1870, a federal grand jury labeled the Klan a “terrorist organization” and began issuing indictments. The following year, Congress passed the Enforcement Acts, which mandated federal authorities to protect voting. By 1872, the original Klan was dead. But secret societies seldom just roll over and quit, and so is the case with KKK. However, that’s another story for another day.

Common Questions about the Ku Klux Klan

Q: Who founded the Ku Klux Klan and why?

The founders of the Ku Klux Klan were six ex-Confederate officers. They founded the brotherhood in Pulaski, Tennessee, in 1865. Their purposes for founding the group are not known.

Q: What is the origin of the name “Ku Klux Klan?”

The original rules of the Ku Klux Klan were based on those of two defunct orders: the Sons of Malta and Kuklos Adelphon. Therefore, the name of the Ku Klux Klan came from the ancient Greek word “kuklos”, which means “circle”.

Q: Who was the founder of the Knights of the Golden Circle?

The Knights of the Golden Circle originated in the Midwest. Its founder was a physician named George Bickley from Cincinnati. The group envisioned a slavery-based empire covering Mexico, parts of South of America, and the Caribbean Islands.

Keep Reading
Secret Societies: On the Road to Revival?
Secret Societies, or Societies with Secrets?
Emergence of Freemasonry in America and the Secret Masonic Agenda