The Three Generations of Ku Klux Klan

From the Lecture Series: The Real History of Secret Societies

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

The first group of Ku Klux Klan members appeared in the late 19th century in Tennessee. There were many allegations about the origins, purposes, and inspirations of these people, and they have been linked to other fraternity orders like Freemasonry. During its history, the KKK has disappeared and resurfaced multiple times, exerting considerable influence in American history.

Two children and one adult wearing Ku Klux Klan robes are seen in the forefront of a gathering of KKK members.
Two children wearing KKK robes and hoods stand on either side of Dr. Samuel Green, a KKK Grand Dragon, at Stone Mountain, Georgia, on July 24, 1948. (Image: Image Editor/CC BY 2.0/Public domain)

Decline of the First Ku Klux Klan

There have been numerous allegations that the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) was an “appendant body” of Freemasonry. Also, there are claims that Confederate General Albert Pike was the mastermind behind the KKK and the Knight of the Golden Circle—an older and more secret society that championed the preservation of slavery through Southern secession.

There are also arguments that the original Ku Klux Klan was born because federal military commanders and Republican governors couldn’t curb the violence in the post-War south. But the first Klan wasn’t organized and coherent.

Emergence of the Second Ku Klux Klan

Despite the lack of order, the original KKK was the inspiration behind the first anti-terror laws in the US. By 1872, there was no sign of the original KKK. But since secret societies never die, the Klan’s spirit also continued to live in new orders like the Red Shirts, the Knights of the White Camelia, and the Democratic rifle clubs. And thus, the second Klan was formed in 1915, which was inspired by a book, a movie, and even a murder.

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

Did a Film Inspire the Formation of Ku Klux Klan?

Movie poster for The Birth of a Nation.
The Birth of a Nation was adapted from the novel, The Clansman. (Image: Unknown; distributed by Epoch Film Co./Public domain)

In 1905, a North Carolina minister and writer named Thomas Dixon, Jr. penned a novel called The Clansman (with a “C”). In the novel, he depicted a romanticized picture of the Klan and invented the most iconic ritual of the KKK: the cross burning. Called the Crann Tara, or “fiery cross”, it was an old custom from the Scottish Highlands to summon clans to battle. Dixon’s novel sought to justify segregation. Despite protests that the book was grossly inaccurate and inflammatory, it became a hit and was adapted into a movie named Birth of a Nation by D.W. Griffith in 1915. The movie popularized the fantasy of a heroic Ku Klux Klan in the whole country.

Learn more about Freemasonry.

A Murder That Helped Establish the Ku Klux Klan

In 1903, Mary Phagan, a 13-year-old factory worker from Atlanta, Georgia, was found brutally murdered. Phagan’s Jewish boss, Leo Frank, was the primary suspect. Frank was a known member of a fraternal society called the Jewish B’nai B’rith. He was convicted and sentenced to death. This miscarriage of justice was so shocking that B’nai B’rith formed a new body called Anti-Defamation League.

Three people in KKK robes stand near burning cross.
Cross burning was introduced by William J. Simmons, the founder of the second Klan in 1915. (Image: Denver News/Public domain)

In June 1915, Frank’s death sentence was changed to a life prison sentence. In response, a new secret society, called the Knights of Mary Phagan, abducted him from prison and lynched him.

This murder and the visual extravaganza of a Birth of a Nation inspired a failed businessman from Georgia, William J. Simmons. He belonged to several secret societies but decided it was time to establish one. He and his 15 companions went to the top of Stone Mountain near Atlanta on Thanksgiving Day 1915. They burned a cross and declared the birth of the Invisible Empire of the Ku Klux Klan. They proclaimed their aim as “the betterment of man”.

Learn more about masonic revolutions in America and France.

Difference Between the First and Second Klans

The second Klan had significant differences from the first Klan. While the first Klan was based exclusively on Confederate revanchism, the second Klan was not primarily Southern. The first Klan hated Yankees and black freedmen and had no aim of bettering humans. But the second Klan added more groups to its hate list inspired by the social militancy, moral superiority, and the xenophobia unleashed by WWI. Prohibition was also added to the principles promoted by the new Klan, although very few Klansmen avoided alcohol. By the mid-1920s, the members of the Klan had risen to millions.

The Third Ku Klux Klan

Ironically, the second Klan was wiped out due to another murder. In 1925, a young woman named Madge Oberholtzer was kidnapped, brutally raped and tortured. She eventually died. The man behind this shocking incident was the Grand Dragon of the Indiana Klan, David C. Stephenson. The Indiana Klan was one of the biggest chapters in the country. Stephenson, as Grand Dragon, posed as a paragon of moral virtue. When his belief that he was untouchable proved wrong, he turned on the Klan, and aired its dirty laundry in open court and the Klan’s reputation sank.

The third KKK sprang up after WWI and is still active. Formed as a reaction to desegregation and the Civil Rights movement, it was only a collection of secret societies without unity and organization. In the 1980s and ’90s, a wave of younger and more politically savvy leaders, like white supremacist David Duke, gave the Klan fresh energy and publicity. The same period saw younger Klansmen join forces with Skinheads and neo-Nazis, a move that probably would have horrified William Simmons and his foreign-hating brethren.

Common Questions about the Three Generations of Ku Klux Klan

Q: Who was the founder of the second Ku Klux Klan?

The founder of the second Ku Klux Klan was a failed businessman from Georgia, William J. Simmons. He belonged to several secret societies but decided it was time to establish one.

Q: What led to the disappearance of the second Ku Klux Klan?

The second Ku Klux Klan was wiped out due to the brutal rape and murder of a young woman by Grand Dragon of the Indiana Klan, David C. Stephenson. In his trials, he revealed the secrets of Klan, which destroyed the Klan’s reputation.

Q: Is there a third Ku Klux Klan?

Yes. The third Ku Klux Klan was born after the Second World War. It still exists, and it was mostly a response to desegregation and the Civil Rights movement. But like the first Klan, it never became unified.

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