In the fall of 1866, in the war-weary town of Pulaski, Tennessee, a group of bored young Confederate veterans came up with a new way to amuse themselves by creating a ghostly costumed fraternity. They called it the Ku Klux Klan, an invented name that they thought would sound mysterious and intriguing. While most of their activities were harmless at first, they also “entertained” themselves by scaring local freed people with menacing antics. hers soon saw the Klan’s sinister potential, turning it into a weapon of war to terrify newly-empowered Blacks and their white allies, destroy the embryonic two-party system in the South, and subvert the recently launched Reconstruction. They were inventing America’s first terrorist movement.
Under former general Nathan Bedford Forrest, the Klan rapidly metastasized across the former Confederacy. Although the Klan was nominally hierarchical, Forrest’s cohort seems to have exerted little direct control outside Tennessee. Forrest himself, however, seems to have functioned as a sort of reactionary Johnny Appleseed, sowing the seeds of insurrection as he traveled the region under cover as an agent for an insurance company, presumably identifying willing local commanders and leaving the seeds of new “dens” or “klans” in his wake.
Although in practice they operated independently, dens generally shared a similar “prescript,” or constitution, that demanded absolute secrecy and obedience. For five years, with virtual impunity, the Klan’s night-riding gangs flogged, tortured, and lynched politically active Black men, raped their wives, shot their children, burned Black schools, and threatened Republican voters. In many areas, the Klan served as the clandestine military arm of the Democratic party, which stridently opposed all aspects of Reconstruction. In some counties more than half the white male population joined the Klan, including local elites and public officers. Wherever the Klan rode, courts were compromised, juries intimidated, and witnesses too frightened to testify against the Klan’s crimes. Federal troops were spread far too thinly to offer much protection—there were only about 12,000 posted in the South by 1870—and they were mostly barred from taking action against the Klan wherever civil law was theoretically in effect.
Public officials who dared to oppose the Klan took their lives in their hands. Local Black leaders were prime targets. Among them was Wyatt Outlaw—a common family name in his area—a Black Union army veteran, self-employed carpenter, and elected town councilman who was dragged from his home in his nightshirt by robed Klansmen and defiantly hanged in front of the Alamance County courthouse, in North Carolina. Another was Jim Williams, of York County, South Carolina, who was savagely lynched for organizing a state-sanctioned Black militia company for self-defense against the Klan. In all, at least 2,000 victims, and probably a great many more, were murdered in the former Confederate states between 1865 and 1876, most of them by the Klan. By 1870, Klan terror had become so pervasive that it threatened to cripple bi-racial Reconstruction governments on every level. Across much of the South, the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments were effectively nullified by the Klan’s guns.
Decisive action by Congress and President Ulysses S. Grant finally brought the Klan to heel. Congressional radicals—that is, supporters of Black rights—mustered majorities to pass three Enforcement Acts that defined violation of the Fourteenth Amendment as a federal crime. A joint congressional committee toured the South taking testimony from hundreds of the Klan’s victims, eventually producing an astonishing thirteen-volume report that meticulously chronicled the Klan’s organized terrorist campaigns. With the new legislation in hand, Grant dispatched 1,000 troops to the epicenter of Klan insurrection in upcountry South Carolina, to break the Klan in its heartland. More troops were deployed elsewhere in the South as well. Accustomed to terrorizing the innocent and the unarmed, the Klan crumpled. Their impunity gone, thousands of Klansmen turned themselves in. Hundreds were prosecuted and punished, though far fewer than federal prosecutors hoped, due to the limitations of the short-handed and underfunded Justice Department. Nevertheless, by 1873, the Klan had been largely gutted.
The drive to secure white supremacy would take other forms in the years to come. In the South, terrorism never entirely went away: it became normalized in the repressive institutions of Jim Crow and freelance lynching to ensure that Blacks and their white allies would never regain power. The Klan’s terrorism was romanticized in films such as Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind, and rationalized in histories that justified the Klan’s brutality as a “self-defense” against supposed Black “tyranny.” In the 20th century, Americans would revitalize the Klan and, for a time, turn it into a national movement with a reach far beyond the old Confederacy.
For most of us, “terrorism” is today defined by foreign organizations like Al Qaeda and ISIS. But anti-government radicals today who celebrate white supremacy, who intimidate public officials, who distort the Second Amendment into a cult of the gun, and encourage insurrection against basic national institutions are the indisputable heirs to a dark, wholly American, heritage of nativism, intolerance, and racial zealotry that traces its lineage to the Reconstruction Era Klan.
In June, the FBI declared, “Domestic violent extremists represent one of the most persistent threats to the United States today.” Horrific mass killings with racial or ethic overtones have occurred with increasing frequency in Charleston, Buffalo, Las Vegas, El Paso, Pittsburg, and elsewhere, mostly committed by lone gunmen inspired by one or another strand of radical right-wing ideology. Explicitly political violence is also on the rise. Threats against members of Congress leaped from 902 in 2016 to 9,600 in 2021. (They dropped to about 7,500 in 2022, which is only somewhat reassuring.)
Intimidation has percolated down through every level of government. In Michigan, members of a self-styled “militia” were caught planning the kidnapping of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer. A Texas man was arrested for planning to bomb a commercial cloud service because its equipment, he believed, held contracts with federal agencies. Rounds have been fired at federal courthouses and other federal properties. Death threats against members of members of local school boards and town councils have become commonplace. And attacks on election workers, once unheard of, are now a fact of political life. Some threats have been directed at Republicans. However, the majority have come from the anti-government right and been directed at Democrats and at Republicans such as Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger, who defended national institutions against right-wing lies.
Domestic terrorism was once the province of a radical fringe. As it was in the 1870s, the terrorism of the right has now been mainstreamed. Its rank and file came mostly from the rural working class, its leaders from middle-class landowners, doctors, lawyers, editors, and businessmen. The Klan could not have thrived without the tacit support of large segments of “respectable” southern society. Like the 19th century Klan, today’s anti-government movement is fluid and decentralized. It incorporates polo-shirt-and-khaki-clad street-fighting groups such as the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers, gunned-up “militias,” and unstable loners But its core consists of middle-class Americans who have embraced a menu of grievances including supposed election fraud, Covid restrictions, resistance to immigration, Q-Anon paranoia, and racial theories stewed together by pundits and demagogues, among them, not least, Donald Trump.
One of the most disturbing facts to emerge from the aftermath if the January 6 assault on the Capitol was that the vast majority of participants in the insurrection were not the disenfranchised or unemployed but solidly middle-class men and women, many of them business-owners and professionals; 25 percent of them had college degrees. Most people will not violently break the law, no matter what they tell pollsters. However, history shows us that potency of political violence depends on not just the most extreme elements of society but also on community protection and encouragement from those who have come to believe that it is legitimate, even patriotic.
Despite the prosecution of hundreds of the January 6 insurrectionists, domestic terrorist threats are likely to continue to grow as would-be terrorists “continue adhering to evolving anti-government and conspiracy narrative to justify violence against businesses, government buildings, and public officials,” the FBI predicts. We cannot afford to ignore this ominous trend any more than Americans of 150 years ago could the rising violence of the Reconstruction Era. Grant’s victory against the Klan was ultimately squandered by public apathy toward the fate of the freed people and two-party government in the South. Passivity in the face of creeping insurrection is not a policy. At a minimum, penalties for threatening elected officials and election workers, as well as their families, should be increased. It should also be a federal crime to damage or threaten property being used for election work, including storage facilities, political party offices, and all legislative and judicial buildings. Decisive federal action is essential, if we are not to let our democracy slip through our fingers.