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The Ku Klux Klan Previous Next
Digital History ID 3386


After the Civil War, the Ku Klux Klan, led by former Confederate General Nathaniel Bedford Forrest, used terrorist tactics to intimidate former slaves. A new version of the Ku Klux Klan arose during the early 1920s. Throughout this time period, immigration, fear of radicalism, and a revolution in morals and manners fanned anxiety in large parts of the country. Roman Catholics, Jews, African Americans, and foreigners were only the most obvious targets of the Klan's fear-mongering. Bootleggers and divorcees were also targets.

Contributing to the Klan's growth was a post-war depression in agriculture, the migration of African Americans into northern cities, and a swelling of religious bigotry and nativism in the years after World War I. Klan members considered themselves defenders of Prohibition, traditional morality, and true Americanism. The Klan efforts were directed against African Americans, Jews, Catholics, and immigrants.

In 1920, two Atlanta publicists, Edward Clarke, a former Atlanta journalist, and Bessie Tyler, a former madam, took over an organization that had formed to promote World War I fund drives. At that time, the organization had 3,000 members. In three years they built it into the Southern Publicity Association, a national organization with three million members. After the war, they bolstered membership in the Klan by giving Klansmen part of the $10 induction fee of every new member they signed up.

During the early 1920s, the Klan helped elect 16 U.S. Senators and many Representatives and local officials. By 1924, when the Klan had reached its peak in numbers and influence, it claimed to control 24 of the nation's 48 state legislatures. That year it succeeded in blocking the nomination of Al Smith, a New York Catholic, at the Democratic National Convention.

The three million members of the Klan after World War I were quite open in their activities. Many were small-business owners, independent professionals, clerical workers, and farmers. Members marched in parades, patronized Klan merchants, and voted for Klan-endorsed political candidates. The Klan was particularly strong in the Deep South, Oklahoma, and Indiana. Historians once considered the Ku Klux Klan a group of marginal misfits, rural traditionalists unable to cope with the coming of a modern urban society. But recent scholarship shows that Klan members were a cross-section of native Protestants; many were women, and many came from urban areas.

The leader of Indiana's Klan was David Curtis Stephenson, a Texan who had worked as a printer's apprentice in Oklahoma before becoming a salesman in Indiana. Given control of the Klan in Indiana in 1922 and the right to organize in 20 other states, he soon became a millionaire from the sale of robes and hoods. A crowd estimated at 200,000 attended one Klan gathering in Kokomo, Ind., in 1923.

A public defender of Prohibition and womanhood, Stephenson was, in private, a heavy drinker and a womanizer. In 1925, he was tried, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison for kidnapping and sexually assaulting 28-year-old Madge Oberholtzer, who ran a state program to combat illiteracy. Stephenson's downfall, which was followed by the indictment and prosecution of many Klan-supported politicians on corruption charges, led members to abandon the organization in droves. Within a year, the number of Klansmen in Indiana fell from 350,000 to 15,000. By 1930, the Klan had just 45,000 members in the nation as a whole.

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