The modern Ku Klux Klan, originally founded in 1867 during Reconstruction, is a white supremacist organization that was resurrected in the 1950s to terrorize African Americans and supporters of the modern civil rights movement. Klan affiliates carried out attacks on numerous civil rights workers and volunteers in the South, including the deadly bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham and the shooting death of Viola Liuzzo. The organization was largely bankrupted by a decision against it in a 1987 civil suit relating to a 1981 lynching in Mobile.
The 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Topeka Board of Education, declared racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional and breathed new life into the Klan. During the late 1950s and into the 1960s, Klansmen across the South launched a prolonged campaign of intimidation, violence, and murder in opposition to the civil rights movement. Ultimately, the Klan's terrorism helped black activists gain national attention and support for their cause and failed to prevent desegregation and the protection of voting rights.
The majority of the Ku Klux Klan's members were middle-aged, working class, Protestant white men who viewed African American demands for racial equality as a threat to their social, economic, and political order. Klansmen supported segregation in all public and private facilities, especially in public schools, public transit, and restaurants. The rise of the Klan in the 1950s was a direct response to the mounting pressure placed upon southern states by the federal government to racially integrate public schools. Klan violence in many rural areas of Alabama typically increased during periods when local school systems felt added external pressure to integrate from either the federal government or local civil rights activists. The Klan, as well as many southern whites, saw violence as a justifiable means of resisting school integration. Influenced by the period's Cold War tensions, Klansmen accused civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph David Abernathy of being Communist agitators who sought to undermine American liberty and end southern home rule. In Alabama and across the South, the Klan used intimidation, violence, and murder to deliver its message. Because many of Alabama's law enforcement agents either belonged to the Klan or purposely ignored the group's violence, the Klan acted without fear of prosecution. Meanwhile, white business leaders in Alabama cities, including Montgomery, Birmingham, and Selma, formed branches of the White Citizens Council (also known as the White Collar Klan) that enhanced the Klan's objectives. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Klan also played a role in shaping the rhetoric of many state elections. In 1958, gubernatorial candidate John Patterson openly accepted the Klan's endorsement en route to a victory over George Wallace, who at the time spoke out against the Klan. Four years later, Wallace, desperate to win at any cost, hired Asa Carter, a Klan organizer, to serve as a speechwriter and campaign advisor during his successful gubernatorial bid. Support for the Klan among white business and political leaders statewide gradually eroded however as the Klan's violence made national news and began to tarnish Alabama's image and economy. African American activists, and at times federal law enforcement agents working in Alabama, were the Klan's principle opponents.
Klan membership in Alabama peaked in 1965 at more than 30,000 members during the civil rights-era. The Klan's principle organizer was Robert "Bobby" Shelton, an Air Force veteran who moved to the state in 1961 and founded the United Klans of America organization. Prior to Shelton's leadership, the 1950s Klan lacked any central organizing body or leadership. Numerous groups existed nationwide that referred to themselves as the Klan, but few had any relation to one another beyond their shared racial prejudices. Most of these groups were small, with fewer than 100 members, and localized—their influence rarely extended beyond the area in which their members lived. Shelton's United Klans organized the smaller Klan organizations into a single order that was supposed to be coordinated by a single leader, known as the Imperial Wizard. Shelton led this new organization from the Anglo-Saxon Club in Tuscaloosa. The United Klans, however, failed to govern all Klan activities, as local Klan chapters, known as Klaverns, tended to operate independent of the regional leadership. In Montgomery, for example, Klansmen often met openly in small businesses and coffee shops that were owned and operated by its members, such as the Little Kitchen in Ward Five, just six blocks from the Alabama State Capitol.
During the civil rights movement, the Klan was responsible for carrying out some of the period's most violent assaults. In 1956, during the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Klansmen set dynamite in the home of Martin Luther King Jr. while his wife, Coretta, and newborn baby were inside. The following year, four Montgomery Klansmen murdered Willie Edwards Jr. for allegedly dating a white woman. White men forced Edwards at gunpoint to take a deadly 125-feet jump off a bridge spanning the Alabama River. Three months passed before Edwards's body was located and identified. Despite the fact that the identities of Edwards's four assailants were known shortly after the crime, no one was ever convicted for his murder.
In 1961, Birmingham Police Commissioner Eugene "Bull" Connor used the Ku Klux Klan to coordinate assaults upon the Freedom Riders as they traveled through Alabama. Outside Anniston, members of the Birmingham-based Eastview Klavern #13, known as one of the most violent groups in the South, intercepted and set fire to a Greyhound bus carrying black and white Freedom Riders. Klansmen brutally attacked the riders as they escaped the burning bus while local and state police passively watched from a distance. When a second bus arrived in Anniston, Klansmen boarded it and began physically assaulting riders with clubs. When the Freedom Riders arrived in Birmingham, Klansmen beat riders exiting the bus with metal pipes, baseball bats, and chains. All of these attacks were coordinated by Connor and other law enforcement officials, who provided Klansmen with advance notice of the Freedom Riders' arrival times and agreed to not interfere with the attacks.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Klansmen targeted hundreds of black churches in Alabama, sometimes using dynamite to destroy the buildings. During the early morning hours of Sunday, September 15, 1963, three Klansmen, including Robert Chambliss (who came to be known as Dynamite Bob), planted sticks of dynamite at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham. Hours later the dynamite exploded, killing four young girls and wounding 22 others. Police arrested Chambliss after witnesses placed him at the crime scene, but an all-white jury later acquitted him. National media began referring to Birmingham as "Bombingham" in response to the Klan's repeated bombings of the city's black churches and homes.
The Klan frequently targeted white supporters of the civil rights movement as well. During the Selma to Montgomery March in March 1965, Klansmen plotted schemes to assassinate King. When they failed in these endeavors, Klansmen sought out more accessible targets, such as 39-year-old civil rights volunteer Viola Liuzzo of Detroit, Michigan. Liuzzo had come to Alabama to help black activists after watching news coverage of the "Bloody Sunday" attack in Selma. On the night of March 25, the day the Selma to Montgomery March concluded, Liuzzo volunteered to drive marchers from Montgomery back to Selma. She was spotted by a group of Klansmen while driving with black civil rights worker Leroy Moton and shot and killed during a high-speed car chase along U.S. Highway 80.
In the weeks that followed Liuzzo's murder, disturbing news surfaced that the man who had likely killed her, James Rowe, was an informant for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Rowe had joined the Klan in 1960 at the request of FBI officials, who wanted to infiltrate the organization. Rowe took part in the attacks upon Freedom Riders and a number of other assaults while being paid by the FBI. Rowe's story was just one of many instances in which the FBI failed to protect civil rights activists or to prosecute suspected Klan assailants. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover often refrained from prosecuting known Klan murderers because he believed that Alabama juries would never convict white men accused of killed blacks. Hoover also suspected civil rights leaders, such as Martin Luther King Jr, Rosa Parks, and John Lewis, of having Communist ties.
Ultimately, the Ku Klux Klan's violence undermined the efforts of southern whites in their resistance to racial integration. Klan murders drew national media attention and helped the civil rights movement gain sympathy among white moderates. Nationally, civil, housing, and voting rights acts were signed into law in the 1960s. As the state Democratic Party began to include black politicians and constituents, it became more politically feasible to prosecute aging Klansmen for civil rights-era crimes. For example, during the late 1970s in Alabama, Attorney General Bill Baxley successfully prosecuted "Dynamite Bob" Chambliss for his part in the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing. Several other prominent Klansmen were brought to justice during the 1980s and 1990s, but the vast majority of those who committed crimes were never charged.
The Klan remained active following the civil rights movement. In 1981, Klansmen lynched Michael Donald, a black man living in Mobile. Following a FBI investigation, two Klansmen were convicted of the crime, and one, Henry Hays, was eventually executed. He was the first individual executed for such a crime since 1913. Donald's mother, with assistance from the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, sued the Ku Klux Klan for civil damages and received a $7 million judgment in 1987. This ruling crippled the Klan's ability to operate as federal agents placed liens upon all existing Klan property and bank accounts.
Today, the Ku Klux Klan is a small organization with only a few hundred members that lacks any significant social, political,
or economic influence in Alabama. Numerous hate groups exist that have adopted some form of the Ku Klux Klan's name, but these
groups operate independently with little knowledge of one another's activities. The Klan's decline however does not mean that
support for white supremacist organizations in Alabama has disappeared. Many former Klansmen have joined a wide array of neo-Confederate
organizations, such as the League of the South, headquartered in Killen, Lauderdale County. A number of white supremacist and fascist groups also exist in Alabama.
Greenhaw, Wayne. Fighting the Devil in Dixie: How Civil Rights Activists Took on the Ku Klux Klan in Alabama. Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2011.
Wade, Craig. The Fiery Cross: The Ku Klux Klan in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Keith S. Hébert
University of West Georgia
Published August 15, 2012
Last updated October 8, 2014