The KKK is one of few groups that is so associated with fear and hate-mongering, its own members don’t want to reveal their faces. Today, we lift that shroud of mystery to take a look at some surprising people who were members of the KKK.
Granted, Ashley Wilkes is a character from “Gone With the Wind” and not an actual person, but it’s still rather jarring to know that the formation of the KKK is portrayed in the famous movie. The KKK was born in the aftermath of the Civil War, in 1866. The earliest inception of the group was to protect women and other citizens from the shanty towns that sprang up all over the south once the war ended. From these lofty ideals, the group quickly devolved into an organization bent on oppression and terror. Ashley Wilkes is like a great many real white southerners who joined the organization with good intentions in mind. But that was way back in 1866.
Nathan Bedford Forrest
To be specific, the KKK began in Tennessee. The white hoods and sheets were meant to represent the ghosts of the Confederate soldiers who died in the Civil War. But soon, the group was more about terrorizing blacks than it was about protecting whites. The KKK rode at night, perpetrating raids on areas where blacks lived. Nathan Bedford Forrest, former Confederate general, was in command of the KKK until 1868. He formally disbanded the group at this point, appalled by the violence of it. The KKK lived on, however.
Hugo L. Black
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Congress created a committee in 1871 to investigate the Klan, and passed the civil rights act of 1871 to help curtail the group’s activities. But years later, the KKK would infiltrate the highest levels of government. We’re referring, of course, to Supreme Court Justice Hugo L. Black, a trial attorney from Alabama who joined the group in 1923. He was appointed to the Court in 1937, and there is no clear evidence that he ever left the KKK. Black is to the far left in this photo, standing with two other justices.
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President William McKinley, from Ohio, was a member of the KKK. He served in office from 1897 to 1901. McKinley is to the left here, next to his Vice President Theodore Roosevelt.
The KKK had fallen out of fashion, but it became extremely popular right after World War I. President Woodrow Wilson was in office from 1913 to 1921, for the whole of the war and its immediate aftermath. He was also a member of the KKK.
Warren G. Harding
In the 1920s, the group reached its highest numbers in history with close to 4 million members. The KKK was highly influential in politics at this time. Warren G. Harding was President from 1921 to 1923, and died in office. Harding was purportedly sworn into the KKK while in the White House.
The artist who created Mount Rushmore, Gutzon Borglum, was an active member of the KKK. He reportedly served on one of their councils. When his involvement with the group came to light later, he publicly denounced the KKK.
Calvin Coolidge, President of the United States, served in office from 1923 to 1929 and was an active KKK member. The KKK became much less popular in the late 1920s, as more about its violent actions became widely known. Membership went down to 40,000 by 1929, and states began passing anti-mask laws to curb KKK activity.
Harry S. Truman
The KKK continued to operate throughout the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, and times were volatile for many African-Americans. Harry S. Truman was President from 1945 to 1953. Truman was a KKK member for about two years, but fell out with the group because he believed Roman Catholics should be allowed to be in politics.
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West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd joined the KKK in the 1940s at the age of 24. He served in the Senate for nearly six decades. The KKK experienced a brief resurgence in the 1960s, and violently opposed the Civil Rights movement. The KKK was directly responsible for the murder of several civil rights workers and attacks on activists at this time. But the glory days were over. The KKK would get weaker and weaker after this.
The KKK fractured into small splinter groups and had a membership of less than 10,000 by the 1990s. The KKK has weathered several lawsuits and arrests, not to mention laws and ordinances that prevent them from engaging in their various activities.
In a bizarre re-branding, one KKK chapter announced recently that it is accepting homosexuals, African-Americans, and Jewish people into the group. The Klan currently has between 5,000 and 8,000 members nationwide.