The white hoods and burning crosses of the Ku Klux Klan are arguably the most powerful and recognizable symbols of white power and violence in the South. Although the Klan has always been a secretive terrorist organization espousing white supremacy, its character and goals have varied throughout its history. This history, in Mississippi and elsewhere, consists of three distinct phases: the Reconstruction era, the “second Klan” of the 1920s, and the period of the civil rights movement. From the outset Mississippi Klansmen used violence and intimidation to impede struggles for black freedom. However, until the civil rights era, the Klan in Mississippi was less violent and had less extensive power than Klans in other states.
Following the Civil War, a number of vigilante groups formed, protesting black enfranchisement and Republican rule in the South. These various organizations eventually became subsumed into the Ku Klux Klan, which had initially organized in Pulaski, Tennessee, in 1866 as a recreational fraternity of Confederate veterans. As it developed into a political organization, spreading its “Invisible Empire” across the South to restore white supremacy, the Klan in effect acted as the terrorist arm of the Democratic Party. It used threatening night rides, whippings, shootings, and lynchings to tyrannize African American voters, landowners, and leaders as well as white Republicans and other backers of black equality.
The Klan did not become active in Mississippi until 1870. Night riding and violence increased at this time but were largely confined to a dozen counties in the northern and eastern parts of the state, particularly Panola, Alcorn, and Tishomingo. Because the Klan was much more prominent in Alabama and Tennessee, counties bordering these states experienced higher rates of Klan activity. In these areas, Klan membership crossed social and economic lines, although planters and professionals were more likely to hold leadership positions.
Although Mississippi’s Klansmen had less political power than Klansmen in other states, the Mississippi Klan was notable for its stand against public schools and black education. Klansmen tore or burned down many schools and threatened, whipped, and killed numerous teachers. On 8 March 1871 Mississippi Klansmen also instigated a riot in Meridian, attracting national attention and helping to prompt federal intervention to control Klan activity. The riot began during the trial of three men accused of inflammatory speech after publicly promoting the organization of black militias as a means to resist Klan vigilantism. The courtroom, filled with armed Klansmen, erupted into violence, with shots fired and three people, including the presiding judge, killed. The chaos spilled into the streets, where white mobs beat and killed perceived black leaders, thwarting any nascent black resistance.
Soon after taking office in 1870, Mississippi governor James Alcorn, a Republican, commissioned a “Secret Service” of police to seek out and combat mounting Klan activity. Klan terror began to wane after 1871 congressional hearings and the passage of federal laws banning mask wearing and night riding. Although the Klan had officially disbanded by 1873, unofficial bands of vigilantes, or whitecappers, continued to terrorize black leaders, landowners, and laborers long after Reconstruction ended.
The Klan officially reorganized in 1915 in Atlanta and reached a peak strength of five million members in the early 1920s. Unlike the Reconstruction-era Klan, the second Klan was a national, Protestant organization, championing “100 percent Americanism” and targeting not only African Americans but Jews, Catholics, and others whom they believed flouted Protestant morality. These Klansmen adopted their most notorious symbol, the burning cross. The Klan was prominent throughout the country, particularly in the Midwest, but was notably more violent in the South. While the Mississippi Klan was similarly terroristic, it was weaker than in neighboring states, never achieving power above local precincts and undertaking relatively restrained activities. William Percy’s Lanterns on the Levee (1941) detailed how the author’s father, US senator LeRoy Percy, challenged the rise of Klan power in Greenville in 1922. As Percy suggested, white elites in the 1920s, unlike those in the Reconstruction era, tended to distance themselves from the Klan, which was dominated by middle- and working-class men. The Klan saw its strength wane by the mid-1920s, when a series of scandals and internal conflicts crippled the organization. Theodore Bilbo, who was elected governor in 1928 and served as a US senator from 1935 to 1947, was a former Klansman, a fact that had little impact on his popularity.
The Klan re-formed again in 1946 and became active across the South in the 1950s and 1960s largely in response to the civil rights movement. Revived Klan activity in Mississippi was first reported in 1954 (following the Brown v. Board of Education decision), and the Klan attained prominence in the state after 1963. Indeed, Klan terror in Mississippi during the 1960s was arguably its most notorious. At this time, “the Klan” consisted of a series of separate factions, including the United Klan and the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, all of which promoted white supremacy and sought to preserve racial segregation and black disenfranchisement. The White Knights was by far the largest and most infamous of these groups. Led by Sam Bowers, it boasted some six thousand members and became one of the most violent Klans in the South. Bowers, a Laurel businessman, was a dynamic and fanatical leader who, like his 1920s predecessors, infused militant Christianity into Klan rhetoric. During the 1960s the White Knights were responsible for more than thirty bombings of black homes, churches, and synagogues and at least ten murders, including those of civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney outside Philadelphia, Mississippi, in 1964 and the 1966 firebombing death of Vernon Dahmer, a leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Forrest County. After four mistrials, Bowers was eventually convicted of Dahmer’s murder in 1998 and sentenced to life in prison.
Klan strength waned by the 1970s because of federal infiltrations and indictments as well as internal conflicts, although it experienced a brief resurgence in the late 1970s and early 1980s, holding marches and burning crosses. As of 2014 Mississippi still had three active Klan organizations, including the White Knights, though their power and strength had weakened considerably.
- David Chalmers, Hooded Americanism: The First Century of the Ku Klux Klan, 1865–1965 (1965)
- Michael Newton, The Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi: A History (2010)
- Patsy Sims, The Klan (1996)
- Southern Poverty Law Center website, www.splcenter.org
- Allen W. Trelease, White Terror: The Ku Klux Klan Conspiracy and Southern Reconstruction (1971)
- Wyn Craig Wade, The Fiery Cross: The Ku Klux Klan in America (1987)