Ku Klux Klan in Birmingham, 1923 The Ku Klux Klan first appeared in Alabama following the Civil War, when many Confederate veterans and Democratic Party supporters formed the group to oppose the extension of citizenship and voting rights among former slaves and to end Republican Party control of the state government. This hate group disbanded during the early 1870s and remained inactive until 1915, when Alabama native William J. Simmons founded a new incarnation on Thanksgiving night atop Stone Mountain, Georgia. One year later, the city of Birmingham established Alabama’s first Klavern—as local Klan organizations were known. The Klan expanded statewide during the early 1920s and claimed to have more than 150,000 members in Alabama. Most Klansmen were white middle-class Protestants whose beliefs in white supremacy motivated their support for the social control of African Americans, immigrants, labor unions, and other groups who threatened their privileged position in American society. Gov. Bibb Graves, U.S. senator J. Thomas Heflin, and U.S. senator and Supreme Court justice Hugo Black were among the Klan’s notable members. Klan membership and influence declined sharply during the late 1920s because of internal conflicts and political opposition from the Big Mule/Black Belt alliance—Alabama’s dominant political coalition.
The new Klan grew slowly under Simmons’s control, but its popularity skyrocketed during the early 1920s under the leadership of Hiram Evans, a Texas dentist who became the group’s Imperial Wizard (supreme leader) in 1921. By 1925, more than 2.5 million Americans had joined the Ku Klux Klan, with more than 115,000 members in Alabama, making it one of the largest membership organizations in American history. That same year, more than 40,000 Klan members paraded down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., in an effort to enhance the organization’s visibility. Alabama’s Klan leaders included prominent men such as Birmingham attorney James Esdale, who served as the Grand Dragon of the Realm of Alabama, Charles C. McCall, who served as the state’s attorney general from 1927 to 1931, and J. Thomas Heflin, who served as a U.S. congressman from 1904 to 1920 and as a U.S. senator from 1920 to 1930. The Klan flourished in Alabama and across the South, but large chapters also formed in other regions, such as the Midwest and the Pacific Northwest.
The Klan’s popularity increased because its morally authoritarian views on issues such as prohibition, immigration, and interracial relationships shared much in common with the attitudes of many middle-class Americans. The Klan’s efforts to control the definition of “True Americanism” arose as large numbers of Roman Catholics, Slavs, and Jews immigrated to America from eastern and southern Europe and African Americans moved to northern and western cities during the Great Migration. The Klan labeled African Americans as “savages” and Jews as “unfit.” Likewise, Roman Catholic allegiance to the Pope, according to the Klan, threatened to undermine American freedom, and their consumption of alcohol supposedly weakened the nation’s moral character. Tens of thousands of white Alabamians joined the Klan not only to maintain racial segregation between the state’s black and white inhabitants but also in response to the influx of Jewish capitalists and workers of eastern European descent. The latter supposedly challenged the political and economic power of white Alabamians.
In Alabama, the Klan’s tenuous alliance with the state’s Big Mule industrialists and Black Belt planters influenced the group’s rise and fall. The Montgomery Advertiser, a newspaper that represented Black Belt planter political interests, celebrated the Klan’s rebirth and its roots in opposition to what many southerners viewed as the police state imposed on them during Reconstruction. Klansmen across Alabama named their chapters after noted Confederates such as Robert E. Lee and Nathan Bedford Forrest in recognition of the new Klan’s supposed connection to the state’s Confederate past. The Birmingham-Age Herald, a newspaper that represented Big Mule industrialist interests, proclaimed that the Klan’s rebirth would help the city’s white population fend off African American efforts at racial equality.
Ku Klux Klan Rally in Opelika, 1925 Klansmen also capitalized upon the state’s post-World War I surge in patriotism and civic pride by donating large American flags to schools, organizing special events to recognize national holidays, and supporting organizations such as the Boy Scouts of America. Some Klansmen provided funds for the construction of new medical facilities, church campgrounds, and libraries. Throughout Alabama, the Klan promoted its views at sponsored concerts, barbecues, fireworks shows, and parades. The Klan gained popularity among many local leaders because its public acts promoted dominant community interests. By the mid-1920s, the Klan claimed to represent Alabama’s social and economic elite: lawyers, newspaper editors, educators, physicians, business leaders, judges, Masons, bankers, ministers, and politicians.
The Klan’s civic-minded façade often hid the organization’s violence. Members committed thousands of individual acts of violence and intimidation statewide. For example, the Klan flogged white men accused of abusing women or children and those who appeared drunk in public. These attacks helped the Klan maintain its self-appointed role as the community’s moral authority. Klansmen also attacked many Jews and Catholics to prevent them from asserting any rights in the community. Although the Klan’s violence affected a broad range of Alabamians, African Americans continued to be this hate group’s principle target, as had been the case during Reconstruction. Black Alabamians who had achieved middle-class status, often professionals such as physicians and educators, found themselves the target of Klan violence, which often reinforced the state’s Jim Crow segregation laws. Klansmen often physically assaulted whites and blacks who had dared to sit together on a bus or train. In two notable incidents, Klansmen publicly beat a black physician in Ensley, Jefferson County, who had treated white patients and murdered three black farm laborers Shelby County who had quit their low-wage jobs and left their white employer’s farm in search of higher wages in nearby Birmingham.
Black Alabamians often resisted and sometimes fought off Klan assaults. When Klansmen in Pine Level, Autauga County, began parading in front of Rosa Parks‘s grandfather’s home, for example, he sat vigilantly beside the window for several nights with a loaded double-barrel shotgun, intent upon shooting the first white man who stepped on his front porch. Many black men in Montgomery carried pistols at all times, a fact that was well known among the city’s Klansmen. Most African Americans tried their best to avoid the Klan and sometimes ignored acts of Klan violence that they witnessed, fearing that any reaction might lead to outbreaks of lynchings like those that occurred during Reconstruction.
In 1926, as the Alabama Klan reached the apex of its political influence, its violence began to become a liability for affiliated politicians and businessmen. Klan violence, as well as the threat that the Klan’s popularity could challenge the state’s ruling conservative order, led Black Belt planters and Big Mule industrialists to distance themselves. Bolstered by their continued popular support, however, the Klan ran a slate of challengers, including Hugo Black for the U.S. Senate, against the Big Mule/Black Belt-backed candidates in the 1926 Democratic Party primary. Black courted Klan support by visiting all of the state’s 148 Klan chapters. In one of the greatest upsets in the state’s political history, Black defeated a field of Big Mule/Black Belt coalition candidates that included John Bankhead II, the son of a prominent Alabama senator, and L. B. Musgrove, a millionaire businessman. The Klan also backed Bibb Graves’s successful gubernatorial campaign. Ironically, Graves became one of the most progressive reformers to ever hold the state’s highest elected office and Black later became one of the most progressive U.S. Supreme Court justices in American history.
Grover Hall Following the 1926 election, the Big Mule/Black Belt alliance launched a campaign to destroy the Ku Klux Klan’s newfound political power. Using their allies on the editorial pages of the state’s leading print publications, such as the Montgomery Advertiser, the Birmingham-Age Herald, and the Alabama Baptist, the leaders of the Big Mule/Black Belt alliance railed against the Klan’s vigilante tactics as an example of the growing sense of lawlessness that threatened Alabama’s social and economic future. Journalist Grover Hall Sr., who had previously supported the Klan until the group challenged the state’s dominant political order, became its most vocal critic, motivated by a combination of political and moral reasons; Hall received a Pulitzer Prize in 1928 in recognition of his blistering assaults upon the Klan.
Klan-backed politicians, such as Graves and Black, also distanced themselves from and often launched verbal attacks against the Klan. As its membership and public support faded, the Klan’s political influence dwindled. During the 1928 presidential election, the Klan unsuccessfully tried to convince Alabama voters to support Republican candidate Herbert Hoover instead of Democratic nominee Alfred Smith, a Roman Catholic backed by the state’s Big Mule/Black Belt coalition. The Klan also backed an unsuccessful slate of candidates during the 1930 statewide elections and was effectively neutralized as a political force in Alabama. By the start of the Great Depression, the Klan in Alabama and nationwide had virtually ceased to exist as a national force.
Despite the Klan’s loss of power and popular support, the much smaller group remained active during the 1930s and 1940s. The U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 Brown v. Board school desegregation decision and the start of the modern civil rights movement breathed new life into the floundering hate group during the 1950s, when a third incarnation of the Klan emerged to launch a campaign of violence and intimidation.
Feldman, Glenn. Politics, Society, and the Klan in Alabama, 1915-1949. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1999.
Wade, Wyn Craig. The Ku Klux Klan in America: The Fiery Cross. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.