The first comprehensive examination of the nineteenth-century Ku-Klux Klan since the 1970s, Ku-Klux pinpoints the group’s rise with startling acuity. Historians have traced the origins of the Klan to Pulaski, Tennessee, in 1866, but the details behind the group’s emergence have long remained shadowy. By parsing the earliest descriptions of the Klan, Elaine Frantz Parsons reveals that it was only as reports of the Tennessee Klan’s mysterious and menacing activities began circulating in northern newspapers that whites enthusiastically formed their own Klan groups throughout the South. The spread of the Klan was thus intimately connected with the politics and mass media of the North.
In the following excerpt from Ku-Klux: The Birth of the Klan during Reconstruction (pp. 27-34), Parsons shares the origins of the Ku-Klux Klan’s name and introduces its founding members.
I will only add that nearly all the BLOOD AND THUNDER proclamations and general orders issued in circular form or printed in the columns of THE CITIZEN when the order was in its incipient form and before it had assumed political significations, originated in the brain and were written by the Faber of the then editor of THE CITIZEN, solely for fun and sensational effect. What editor, pray tell me, imbued with the least journalistic enterprise, would have failed to take advantage of the circumstances and enlivened his cou[rse] with these sensational fulminations? Would you? This is my excuse and defense.
—From “Mr. Frank McCord Tells What He Knows about the Kuklux,” Pulaski Citizen, clipping dated December 18, 1892
The Ku-Klux began as a name. It was chosen by a group of young former Confederates in Pulaski, Tennessee, in May or June 1866. Pulaski, the seat of Giles County, is seventy-four miles south of Nashville, connected to the city by the Nashville and Decatur Railroad. The war’s shadow fell heavily on the nation, but Pulaski bore a disproportionate share of suffering. While it was never itself a battlefield, Federal troops had occupied it, and it was in close proximity to some of the war’s most deadly fighting. Union troops camped in Pulaski in the days before the bloody Battle of Nashville, and were a frequent presence throughout the war. These strains may have contributed to the area’s fraught postwar atmosphere.
Giles County saw more than its share of “the ordinary violence of emancipation.” As early as 1866, Giles County experienced particularly heightened racial conflict and noteworthy resistance to federal control. A group of black leaders emerged in Giles during the war, including Dangerfield “Danger” Rhodes (a brickmason, aged fifty-three at the end of the war, who had been buying his time from his master for some years before the war and owned several horses and mules; he sharecropped with his sons during the war and would report $1,900 in property on the 1870 census), Henry Webb, Orange Jones, and others. These were, as one of their number was described, “active energetic m[e]n with good hard homade Sense,” who had won the respect not only of other black Giles Countians, but also of some Union officers (some of whom had stayed on Danger Rhodes’s place during the war). They also worked to support less well-positioned freedpeople: Freedmen’s Bureau superintendent R. C. Caldwell described Danger Rhodes as “a very deserving colored man . . . who beyond his means has been alleviating the wants & necessities of the poor of his race. During the winter he has had under his roof one man (crushed in the tornado . . .), & a nurse for the same, a lying-in woman with three children; all of whom he had to feed & furnish fuel. They sought his house for refuge in their distress, and he would not turn them away from his door.” They reported local problems to sympathetic federal officials. By early 1866, they sent a collective letter to Freedmen’s Bureau assistant commissioner Clinton Fisk: “There is a disposission on the part of the white Citizens some of them to impose and [sic] the colored citizens.” They reported that whites refused to let them use the church basement that had been promised to them for their own church services (after allowing them to renovate it for the purpose), and also refused to allow a black-owned grocery to sell alcoholic beverages, despite its proper licensing. They gave several compelling accounts of abuse. A black saloonkeeper in Pulaski hung a sign out that said “Equal Rights,” which whites immediately tore down. Pulaski was the kind of place where such a sign would have been pulled down, but it is perhaps even more significant that it was the kind of place where someone was going to put it up to begin with.
Freedmen’s Bureau agents consistently identified whites in Giles as particularly oppressive of freedpeople. Superintendent Caldwell took the freedmen’s part, and they considered him well-meaning but complained that he was ineffective. Finding Caldwell unable to stop “gross outrages” in the county, the Bureau removed him in June 1866, and soon replaced him with Captain George E. Judd, a man of firmer mettle and backed by a cavalry. Reporting to his commander Michael Walsh in December 1866, Judd was struck by the unreconstructed nature of Giles County whites, even compared to whites in nearby counties. “It can almost be said that there is no law in Giles County all do just as they see fit without regard to law or decency.”
Freedmen’s Bureau officials could not agree on where to assign blame for aggression against freedpeople in Pulaski. Sometimes the perpetrators were clearly landowners. Prominent Confederate leader John C. Brown lived in Pulaski, and the local editor of the Democratic paper, the Pulaski Citizen, Frank McCord, was believed to be drumming up antiblack sentiment. But those same Freedmen’s Bureau officials also pointed to lower-class whites, “roughs,” as the heart of the problem. Captain George E. Judd, soon after his arrival in Pulaski, fingered poor whites, “men who amount to nothing, have no property and no principle,” or “the low class of whites.” The Pulaski Citizen agreed with the Freedmen’s Bureau that street violence by rowdies was a major problem. Their town was overtaken with the “horse-thieves, housebreakers, loafers and whisky-heads of this community” indulging “their propensities for committing depredations upon the public and reveling in their midnight orgies,” the paper said. It called for Pulaski’s more publicly inclined citizens to put an end to it: “Our citizens should take the matter in their own hands and endeavor to rid the country of such villains.”
Events nearby contributed to the tension and disorder. The Memphis Riot in May 1866, followed by the New Orleans Riot in July, each left dozens of black people dead at the hands of white mobs: many more black urbanites suffered rape, beatings, arson, and theft during these sprees of intense racial violence. The urban race riot was a novel form of violence for the South, a response by whites to freedpeople’s new claims and practices, and it was hard not to notice that the federal government was unable or unwilling to protect freedpeople from such extreme violence, nor even to find and punish wrongdoers in its wake. As one black Pulaskian worried, “Those Memphis Riots are having their effect here.” Organized white violence began to feel attractive and pragmatic to strong southern partisans, and unfortunately inevitable to many others. By the summer of 1867, some political leaders were calling quite publicly for organized resistance to black claims to political, social, and economic rights, and to federal authority. Influential former confederate general Albert Pike advised Tennessee’s conservative whites to form themselves into civic guard companies.
The Ku-Klux Klan was created at this moment and in this place. As the story goes,
One evening in May, 1866, a few . . . young men met in the office of one of the most prominent members of the Pulaski bar. In the course of the conversation one of the number said: “Boys, let us get up a club of society of some description.” The suggestion was discussed with enthusiasm. . . . The committee appointed to select a name, reported that they had found the task difficult, and had not made a selection. They explained that they had been trying to discover or invent a name which would be, to some extent, suggestive of the character and objects of the society. They mentioned several which they had been considering. In this number was the name “Kukloi” from the Greek word Kuklos, meaning a band or circle. At mention of this, some one cried out: “Call it Ku Klux.” “Klan” at once suggested itself, and was added to complete the alliteration. So instead of adopting a name, as was the first intention, which had a definite meaning, they chose one which to the proposer of it, and to every one else, was absolutely meaningless.
The men who first became Ku-Klux—Frank O. McCord, Richard Reed, John C. Lester, Calvin Jones, John Booker Kennedy, and James Crowe—presented themselves as elites and intellectuals, above and opposed to the violence of rough men, but also as men who felt the stern responsibility to restore their collapsed society. All were Confederate veterans who had returned to a devastated and depressed Pulaski. They came from comfortable backgrounds and were in their mid-twenties through mid-thirties. Frank McCord, who was thirty-three in 1866, was listed in the 1870 census as an editor of the Pulaski Citizen, and had $3,000 in property. The paper was owned by his younger brother Luther. While never listed as a founding member, Luther would play a crucial role in the beginnings of the Klan. Twenty-seven years old in 1866, he boasted $10,000 in combined property on the 1870 census. Calvin Jones and John Lester appear in the census as attorneys. Richard Reed was thirty-six in 1866. He alone does not appear in the 1870 census, but in 1860 he was a thirty-year-old attorney reporting no property and living in a boardinghouse with other professionals. Calvin Jones in 1870 would still be living with his very wealthy lawyer father (who reported $35,000 in 1870); in 1866 he would have been twenty-five. Thirty-three-year-old John Lester was his close neighbor and also lived with an older male relative, probably his father, and reported no property in 1870. James Crowe was twenty-seven in 1866. By the 1870 census he would call himself a cotton broker and report $10,500 in property. There are a few John Kennedys in the 1860 and 1870 Giles Census, but the correct one is probably the one who appears in 1860 as a twenty-year-old living with a prosperous farmer and personally claiming $20,000 in combined property (an inheritance: his three younger siblings each also had $20,000). Luther and Frank had attended two years of Lagrange College in Alabama, and Crowe and Lester too had some higher education, the former at Giles College, the latter at Center College in Danville, Kentucky. They were seen by those sympathetic to them as educated elites. Luther McCord’s younger brother Lapsley, in an obituary, would praise him as “widely read.” Pulaskian Mildred Ezell Reynolds later proudly recalled that the early Klan “was composed of the nicest and most cultured young men in the town and country, thus the origin of the club’s name is Greek.” Mrs. S. E. F. (Laura) Rose similarly noted years later that “the very conception of the Ku-Klux was amid influences elevating and refining, and its charter members were gentlemen of education and refined tastes.” None of the founders was a plantation owner, and only Crowe (at least by 1870) had a position directly tied to agriculture, so the impact of the end of slavery was perhaps less direct on them than on many others.
These men may, early on, have been joined by George W. Gordon, who had been a general in the Confederate army. He was a lawyer in Pulaski at the time, so in such a small community he would have known the original group well. While early texts do not mention him as among the original members, a prescript and pin that have been passed down by his family and are now held by the Tennessee State Historical museum suggest that he had early involvement with the group. Historian Stanley Horn suggests that he was the author of the original Prescript.
The men who conceived of the Ku-Klux Klan were naturally worried not only about public order in the streets of Pulaski, but more generally about the explosive political situation of Tennessee, the dire situation their community found itself in, and the extent to which former Confederates would have the right to participate in the new state and national governments. They also worried about the role freedpeople would take in the new social, political, and economic order, and how they might relate to them.
These men coexisted uncomfortably with the confident emergent class of black leaders, yet the violent oppression of the latter by the former was perhaps not seen as inevitable by either group just after the war. When an 1866 article in the Pulaski Citizen referred to “Danger Rodes” as “one of our most honorable and industrious colored citizens,” the designation may have been intended as parody. But it seems likely that it was not. The article approved of his having shot a man stealing from his watermelon patch, and the joke was at the thief’s expense. As long as Rhodes and other black elites were in close and positive communication with a nearby military force that was potentially willing to intervene on their behalf, white Democratic elites were motivated to take them seriously.
The first Ku-Klux was likely not founded for the direct purpose of racial conflict. The nonpolitical origin of the Ku-Klux is one of the few areas where historians have largely agreed. Allen Trelease could not have been clearer: “The Ku-klux was designed purely for amusement, and for some time after its founding it had no ulterior motive or effect. All the evidence supports this.” Yet the evidence is so scant and unreliable that it must be approached with care.
Mainly, historians have based claims to the Klan’s innocent origins on brief accounts of its founding written by former members more than a decade later for the explicit purpose of celebrating the Ku-Klux’s role in redeeming the South from Reconstruction. Original member James R. Crowe, for instance, wrote, “The first meeting was purely social. We would frequently meet after the day’s business was over in some room or office. We would have music and songs. [Frank] McCord was one of the finest violinists I have ever known and [Calvin] Jones was equally gifted as a guitarist. We would go and see the pretty girls of Pulaski or go serenading and amuse ourselves as best we could.” Frank McCord claimed that the group was “longing for some kind of amusement and recreation, and organized for the purpose mentioned.” John C. Lester (with his collaborator D. L. Wilson) wrote that all members agreed that “the end in view” was “diversion and amusement.” In his unpublished 1911 historical novel about the Ku-Klux, Frank McCord’s younger brother Lapsley remembers that in its early days “there were parties of them out nearly every evening calling upon their sweethearts.” The one outsider who claimed to have seen Ku-Klux before 1867 (he testified to having seen them in the fall of 1866, though he was most likely mistaken in his date and meant fall of 1867) had witnessed their appearance at a “moon-light pic-nic in a beech-grove, where they emerged to enjoy the entertainment.”
There is material evidence that the Ku-Klux’s founders participated in the minstrel tradition: Frank McCord’s fiddle is in the collection of the Tennessee State Historical Museum. A contemporary image further supports this account of the Ku-Klux’s origins. The image, labeled “Midnight Rangers, Pulaski, Sept. 3, 1866,” depicts seven young men with musical instruments, including fiddles, a guitar, and a banjo. Discovered by Pulaski historian Bob Wamble, the carte de visite likely represents an early incarnation of the Ku-Klux. Comparing the carte de visite with the few available contemporary images of the original Ku-Klux, Wamble provisionally identifies six of them as John Lester, Calvin Jones, Richard Reed, Frank McCord, John Booker Kennedy, and James Crowe. He was unable to identify the seventh. While their faces are not blackened, their informal dress, jaunty poses with hats askew, and choice of instruments suggest that they are performing in either the minstrel tradition or a related genre. If the Ku-Klux founders were not the men depicted in this image, they were down the street doing the same thing; if the men in the picture were not the future Ku-Klux, their name (to Civil War–era Americans, “rangers” meant “informal militia”) associated them with nocturnal violence. If this group is the Klan founders, their choice of a paramilitary name shows that anger and the idea of violence were present from the beginning, even though the evidence (or the absence of evidence) suggests that the idea of violence was as far as they went.
From Ku-Klux: The Birth of the Klan during Reconstruction. Copyright © 2015 by the University of North Carolina Press.
Elaine Frantz Parsons is associate professor of history at Duquesne University. Her book Ku-Klux: The Birth of the Klan during Reconstruction is now available. Follow the author on Twitter @ProfEFP.
- Mrs. S. E. F. Rose, based on a letter from Major James R. Crowe reprinted in her text, places the beginning in the winter of 1865–66. Rose, Ku Klux Klan, 18. The May date is given in William Thomas Richardson, Historic Pulaski, Birthplace of the Ku-klux: Scene of Execution of Sam Davis (W. T. Richardson, 1913), 13, and in Lester and Wilson, Ku Klux Klan, 53. The date of “1867” is given in “Mr. Frank McCord Tells What He Knows about the Kuklux,” Pulaski Citizen, photocopy of a clipping of a December 18, 1892, letter from Frank McCord, Fayetteville, Tenn., Robert Wamble Personal Papers, Pulaski, Tenn.↩
- “The fight was very desperate and sanguinary. The Confederate generals led their men in the repeated charges, and the loss among them was of unusual proportions.” Grant, Personal Memoirs, 535–36.↩
- Kidada Williams, They Left Great Marks on Me, 26.↩
- Letter from John A. Jackson to Brig. Gen. Clinton B. Fisk, December 25, 1865, J-56, Registered Letters Received, Series 3379, Office of the Assistant Commissioner of Tennessee, Records of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands, RG 105, U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C. [BRFAL] (Freedmen and Southern Society Project, University of Maryland, College Park [FSSP] A6058).↩
- Letter from John A. Jackson to Brig. Gen. Clinton B. Fisk, December 25, 1865.↩
- Letter from Cornelius Brown and Other Citizens to Brig. Gen. Clinton B. Fisk, March 8, 1866, Box 5, B-84 (1866), Registered Letters Received, Series 3379, Office of the Assistant Commissioner of Tennessee, BRFAL (FSSP A6230).↩
- Resolution from Henry Webb and others, submitted to Brig. Gen. Clinton B. Fisk, March 26, 1866, filed as M-89 (1866), Registered Letters Received, Series 3379, Office of the Assistant Commissioner of Tennessee, BRFAL (FSSP A6294).↩
- Blight, Race and Reunion, 113.↩
- Letter from Col. J. R. Lewis, Chief Superintendent of Nashville Sub-District, to Brig. Gen. Clinton B. Fisk, July 24, 1866, L-91 (1866), Box 7, Registered Letters Received, Series 3379, Office of the Assistant Commissioner of Tennessee, BRFAL (FSSP A6285).↩
- Monthly Report for Williamson and Giles Counties for December 1866 submitted by Captain George E. Judd (Superintendent) to Captain Michael Walsh (Chief Superintendent), December 31, 1866, J-63, Registered Letters Received, Series 3570, Subassistant Commissioner of the Subdistrict of Nashville, Tennessee, BRFAL (FSSP A6482).↩
- Letter from Captain George E. Judd (Agent) to Captain Michael A. Walsh (Subassistant Commissioner), May 14, 1867, Box 88, No. 453, Registered Letters Received, July 1866–September 1868, Series 3570, Subassistant Commissioner of the Subdistrict of Nashville, Tennessee, BRFAL (FSSP A6488).↩
- Blight, Race and Reunion, 113, includes a sound description of the racial situation in Pulaski at the time of the Klan’s emergence. Monthly Report for Williamson and Giles Counties for December 1866 submitted by Captain George E. Judd (Superintendent) to Captain Michael Walsh (Chief Superintendent), December 31, 1866.↩
- “High-Handed Robbery,” Pulaski Citizen, January 17, 1867, 3.↩
- John A. Jackson to Clinton B. Fisk, December 25, 1866.↩
- Severance, Tennessee’s Radical Army, 87.↩
- Lester and Wilson, Ku Klux Klan, 55–56; “Luther McCord: Brother’s Historical Sketch and Tribute,” Pulaski Citizen, September 20, 1900; Susan Lawrence Davis, Authentic History, 17, 19.↩
- “Luther McCord: Brother’s Historical Sketch and Tribute,” Pulaski Citizen, September 20, 1900.↩
- Mildred Ezell Reynolds, “My Memoirs,” p. 4, typescript, Garrett Family Papers, Filson Historical Society, Louisville, Ky.↩
- Rose, Ku Klux Klan, 18.↩
- Horn, Invisible Empire, 113.↩
- “Shooting,” Pulaski Citizen, July 27, 1866, p. 3.↩
- Early-twentieth-century historians were the first professional historians to tell the story of the Ku-Klux. Yet even these earliest historians consistently emphasized that the beginnings of the Ku-Klux were “innocent,” meaning purely frivolous and free of political intention, even though Ku-Klux founders would very soon discover and exploit its political utility. William Garrett Brown, The Lower South in American History, 202; William Archibald Dunning did apologize to his readers up front that they might perceive him as slighting “the picturesque details of Ku-Klux operations.” Dunning, Reconstruction, xvi. Revisionist historians took a considerably dimmer view of the Ku-Klux, and one might expect they would have questioned the innocent origins idea. A few did: John Hope Franklin argued that these men “could hardly have been unaware of what they were doing. Even if they were bored and impatient with life, as has been claimed in their defense, this was nothing new for young bloods in the village of Pulaski, Tennessee. Nor were wanton attacks on helpless Negroes new.” Franklin, Reconstruction, 154↩
- Trelease, White Terror, 5.↩
- “Origin of the Ku Klux Klan,” letter to the Nashville Banner from James R. Crowe, Sheffield, Ala., n.d., Giles County Historical Society Archives, Pulaski, Tenn.↩
- “Mr. Frank McCord Tells What He Knows about the Kuklux.”↩
- Lester and Wilson, Ku Klux Klan, 53.↩
- Lapsley David McCord, “Red Gown,” unpublished manuscript, Ku-Klux Collection, Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis.↩
- Testimony of Daniel Coleman, KK Report, vol. 9, Ala., 2:660.↩
- Lester and Wilson, Ku Klux Klan, 21.↩