America's oldest terrorist organization and one of the most famous hate groups in the world, the Ku Klux Klan was founded by six Confederate veterans in Pulaski, Tennessee in 1865. The name originates from the Greek term "kuklos" (κύκλος, "circle') to symbolize their bond as brothers, since the group was designed to be a fraternity by the aforementioned veterans (who were well-educated in Latin and Greek) shortly after the Civil War.note However, as the group grew in popularity, its members quickly turned to violence towards newly freed blacks and Northerners ("Yankees"). In a short amount of time, the KKK became a dire threat to Reconstruction, but was put down by various laws and arrests (and actions taken from within the Klan) in the 1870s, finally coming to an end at some point during the decade.
In the 1910's, a second Klan was formed as a response to immigrants from Eastern Europe, most of whom were either Catholic or Jewish, although they still continued their violence towards African-Americans, especially after The Birth of a Nation (1915) was released. Within a decade, several politicians, churches, and schools openly endorsed or were endorsed by the Klan, with over four million members calling themselves Klansmen. However, after a series of scandals, the Klan waned in both power and numbers during The Great Depression and World War II — only to come back in the 1950's and 60's as a third Klan, this time with the goal of fighting the Civil Rights Movement. This movement fizzled out as well, and in the 1970s, the Ku Klux Klan decentralized and broke off into various splinter groups that have taken root across the United States. By 1980, there was no single Klan, and as of today, there still isn't.
The hatred towards Catholics has died off in most Klan groups (save for a few), but the hatred towards blacks, Jews, and immigrants remain. With changing dynamics, these immigrants are now mostly Latino and Asian instead of Eastern European, and now Muslims, liberals, and LGBT individuals are added to the list of people hated by the various KKK splinter groups.
There are four distinct Klans, each with their own history.
The First Klan (1865-1872)
The earliest Klan group, founded by Confederate veterans basically as a jokey social club that served as an excuse to drink with the boys and avoid bar closing hours, much as veterans were doing across the country. The Elks date from the same period among Union veterans — but, to be fair, they were also whites only until the 1970s. The Klan's subsequent story is basically a tale of a harmless thing turning terrible. It quickly spread across Tennessee, and later the whole South, and became a platform for organizing Southern white political messaging. It was during this stage that former Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest joined the organization, when it was a non-violent if rather intimidating and racist organization. However, after the Tennessee state elections of 1867, it quickly became a hate group and America's first terrorist organization. For the record, Forrest claimed that his association with the Klan ended when it turned to violence, which may or may not be true.
Early Installment Weirdness is in effect for this group, as much of the imagery associated with the KKK (white robes, conical hats, the Confederate Flag) is largely absent. The First Klan did wear masks and hoods to conceal their identities, which originally brought people in to join the group (as they were often colorful and eccentric, plus the sight of people in costume riding down the street was an interesting sight), but as the group turned to violence, the Klan used this to their advantage, with some even claiming that they were ghosts of Confederate dead killed in the Civil War to their victims. The practice of naming members with strange titles such as "Grand Cyclops", "Ghoul", and "Grand Wizard" originated here, though only the latter survived into later Klans.
The Second Klan (1915-1944)
The most powerful but arguably least well-known iteration of the Ku Klux Klan, the Second Klan was founded as a response to the waves of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, most of whom were either Catholic or Jewish. At the time, the Roman Catholic Church was widely seen by America's White Anglo-Saxon Protestant majority as a foreign, medieval religious institution that was out to subvert America's religious freedom by using Catholic immigrants (who were seen as more loyal to Rome than Washington) as a fifth column, while Jews were seen as unclean and owing their success to cliquishness and subversion. One impetus for their formation was the murder trial of Leo Frank, a Jewish man falsely convicted of murdering a young girl in Atlanta in 1915; when he received a life sentence rather than the death penalty, he was lynched.
The Klan also took inspiration from the film The Birth of a Nation (1915), which glorified the First Klan. Black audiences were infuriated at their depiction in the movie (keep in mind, there were practically zero positive depictions of the black community back then, and the film painted over an entire group of people as inferior, violent, and sex-crazed bunch of maniacs who were a threat to the white race), but the film gained popularity in the United States regardless, and eventually took the "honor" of being the first film screened at the White House by president Woodrow Wilson, who is reported to have said, "It is like writing history with lightning, and my only regret is that it is all so terribly true." Whether he actually said this is hotly disputed, though it wouldn't have been out of line with his general attitudes about race.
Within ten years, the popularity of the Klan grew immensely. Membership peaked at around six million in 1924, one year before the Klan's famous parade through Washington, D.C., and Klan membership was almost a necessity to run for public office in many states. While the widespread story that Warren G Harding was inducted into the Klan while President is likely apocryphal,note other prominent congressmen and state-level politicians throughout the South and Midwest indisputably were, and it became powerful enough nationally to derail Al Smith's presidential candidacy in 1928, due to Smith's Catholic faith. However, a series of scandals — most notably the trial of Indiana Grand Dragon D. C. Stephenson for rape, murder, and apparent cannibalism — destroyed the Klan's reputation as defenders of law and order, sending it into decline during the late '20s and '30s. They finally died out in 1944. A lot of the common images of the Klan, such as conical hats, white robes, and burning crosses, started here. Klan violence during this time also led to the formation of the Jewish Anti-Defamation League, today one of the chief civil rights/anti-racism organizations.
The Third Klan (1945-1970s)
This is the Klan most modern Americans remember. The Third Klan was formed out of several smaller Klans to combat the Civil Rights Movement, beginning in The '50s with a Klan in Birmingham, Alabama resisting social change. This eventually gave way to a series of bombings throughout the city, which gained the nickname "Bombingham" as a result. As the Klans unified to form one single Klan in The '60s, Alabama (and especially Birmingham) would find themselves at the center of Klan activity, with several police departments and even governor George C. Wallace forging an alliance with the Klan, which operated with near impunity.
A particularly notorious example of how close the Klan and the police were at that time came when the Freedom Riders, a group of civil rights activists who rode buses into the segregated parts of the South, came to Birmingham in 1961. Police Commissioner Bull Connor and Sergeant Tom Cook famously gave the Klan (armed with bats, iron bars, and chains) fifteen minutes to attack the group before the police would get involved and start making arrests, with white riders, seen as "race traitors" for the support for civil rights, being singled out for especially savage beatings. Violent murders and attacks from Klan members continued through the rest of the decade, even after Civil Rights legislation had passed, with the Klan finally dissolving into various smaller groups sometime around the mid-1970s, after increasing pressure from the FBInote and local police. This Klan was the last fully unified Ku Klux Klan, with no single Klan remaining by 1980.
The Fourth Klan (1970s-Present Day)
The current Klan, or more accurately, Klans. This generation of the Ku Klux Klan is different from any previous generation, namely due to lack of unity, close connections with Neo-Nazis, and loosening of membership restrictions. While the First and Second Klans only considered Anglo-Saxon Protestants (and, occasionally, Scottish and Irish Protestants) to be "white", most modern Klan groups will allow any white supremacist to join, and many Klan groups such as the Imperial Klans of America even accept Catholics. The targets and style of their violence have also changed. The lynchings and cross-burnings have been largely replaced with brutal but isolated beatings of innocent people and other hate crimes, and most of their violence nowadays is directed against Latinos, Muslims, and LGBT individuals, though Jews and Blacks are still ripe for targeting. This Klan operates less like a terrorist organization and more like a loose group of disorganized crime gangs, further solidifying their unity with Neo-Nazi skinheads and other white supremacists. Over 32 groups claim to be Ku Klux Klan orders. David Duke was the most prominent Klansman during this time, and was largely responsible for the Klan's shift in tone from an outright hate group to a pro-white "interest group" (though only certain whites, as explained above).
There have additionally been various ersatz Klans over the years, whose histories and memberships often overlap with the main organization. The original Klan, for instance, was founded almost simultaneously to the Louisiana-based Knights of the White Camelia, which turned to violence much sooner than the KKK, and whose actions were so extreme that the government suppressed it much more quickly (with many of its members subsequently joining the Klan). Similarly, the Second Klan inspired a number of imitations and spin-offs. One notorious example was the Black Legion, a terrorist group based in Michigan and Ohio, which actually broke away from the Second Klan after disputes with the national leadership.
Traditionally, the KKK has been associated with the Deep South, but this is only really true of the First note and Third Klans. The Second Klan was a nation-wide organization (Indiana was the state the KKK dominated most in the 1920s), and more modern Klan groups are focused not only in the South but also in the Midwest, the Rockies, and California, with some chapters in Europe and reports of Klan groups as far away as South Africa and Russia.
Beginning in the 1920s, it's become fairly common for the KKK to be referred to as "fascist", with some observers even theorizing that fascism must have begun in America since the Klan preceded Mussolini and Hitler by over half a century. This is probably due to the popular "racism equals fascism" fallacy. While it is true that the second incarnation of the Klan (and, to a lesser extent, subsequent Klans) displayed an extreme form of patriotism not unlike the ultranationalism found in fascist countries, there have been two important differences. First, fascism is (usually) a strictly secular philosophy, and from the very beginning all forms of the Klan have trafficked in religious or at least supernatural imagery. Second, fascism is very statist (focused on centralization of a nation's government), while the original incarnation of the Klan was, in part, a regionalist backlash against the statist policies of Reconstruction. Because of such differences, the Klan and Nazis despised each other when both were enjoying their heyday.note Now, of course, their successors are far more friendly.