On April 20, 1871, President Ulysses S. Grant signed into law the Ku Klux Klan Act, which authorized him to declare martial law and use military force against the Klan and other terrorist organizations.
Also known as the Enforcement Act of 1871, the bill came in response to a growing number of complaints about what a North Carolina senator called “disloyal or evil-designed organizations.”
A group of Confederate soldiers officially formed the KKK the day before Christmas in 1865—about six months after the Civil War ended.
In his 1969 book, Invisible Empire: The Story of the Ku Klux Klan, historian Stanley Horn describes the beginning like this: “Six young men are sitting around the fireplace of Judge Jones’s law office in Pulaski, Tennessee. The war is over. They are bored. Somebody suggests forming a club.”
What began as a secret fraternity rapidly grew into a paramilitary force with a goal of reversing the federal governments’ progress in elevating the rights of African Americans.
In an 1868 declaration, the KKK claimed to be “an institution of chivalry, humanity, mercy and patriotism.” In reality, however, the group employed violence as a means of enforcing white racial superiority.
Those who joined the KKK were elite, white and male, said David Chalmers, an emeritus history professor at the University of Florida. Members wore hooded costumes to hide their identities.
“Their nightly rides, in which members disguised themselves in masks and flowing robes, soon became a political successor to the prewar slave patrols in controlling newly freed blacks,” Chalmers wrote in an article published by the Southern Poverty Law Center. “Particularly across the upper South, Klansmen sought to overturn the new Republican state governments, drive black men out of politics, control black labor and restore black subordination.”
Klan members burned down hundreds of schools and churches and killed thousands of people—often by lynching or burning—earning them the label as the worse domestic terrorist group the United States has ever had, said Mark Pitcavage, director of investigative research for the Anti-Defamation League.
“Confederate veterans formed a little group with no ideological connection at first, but quickly they started to go around and pull little pranks—malicious pranks—against African Americans,” he said. “This started them on the ball to develop ideology of opposing reconstitution and black civil rights, essentially leading an insurrection to try to reinstitute conservative white rule in the former confederate states.”
Many states were afraid to take strong action against the KKK, either because political leaders sympathized with the Klan or because they lacked the authority to act. Some governors feared race wars if they sent black troops to fight the Klan. As violence escalated, especially in the Carolinas, federal lawmakers began lobbying for action.
In December 1870, President Grant called national attention to the Klan’s actions. In a special message to Congress, he cited nearly 5,000 individual acts of violence and homicide attributed to Klan members.
“Free exercise of franchise has by violence and intimidation been denied to citizens in several of the states,” Grant said.
A Senate committee then journeyed to North Carolina and found that the Klan was “indulging in a carnival of murders, intimidation and violence of all kinds,” Horn wrote in his book.
In March 1871, Grant sent an urgent message to Congress, calling on them to take some action that would “effectively secure life, liberty and property.”
“That the power to correct these evils is beyond the control of state authorities, I do not doubt,” Grant told Congress. “That the power of the executive of the United States, acting within the limits of existing laws, is sufficient for present emergencies, is not clear.”
The Ku Klux Klan Act made private criminal acts federal crimes and gave Grant the authority to decree that insurgents were in rebellion against the authority of the United States. He sent federal troops to the areas where violence was at its worst.
Martial law was declared in South Carolina and Mississippi. Hundreds of Klansmen were convicted and sent to jail; others fled or were punished with fines or warnings.
In 1883, the Supreme Court ruled the act unconstitutional, finding that Congress lacked the authority to outlaw racial discrimination by private individuals or organizations. By then, however, the original Klan had disbanded and the worst of the violence was over.
The Klan experienced two revivals, Pitcavage said—once with the influx of Eastern European immigrants during the early part of the 20th century, and again in response to the Civil Rights era of the 1950s and 60s.
Although a single, unified KKK has not existed since the 1940s, an estimated 40 separate groups still operate.