Sunday, June 28, 2015

Nathan Bedford Forrest and the Ku Klux Klan

                                                The Three Klans of America
Actually there have been 3 separate and distinct Klans in America. The first, formed shortly after the Civil War in Dec. 1865, is discussed in greater detail later, and was disbanded by order of Gen. N. B. Forrest in 1869.

The second entirely different Ku Klux Klan was created about 1915, and was formed more out of a sense for job security. These were the hard times leading up to the Great Depression and the Stock Market Crash, and jobs were scarce. The whites figured that if foreign immigrants and Blacks were scared out of town that that would mean less job competition. None of these Klan members carried a Confederate flag -- anytime they paraded it was always with the Stars and Stripes. This second Klan is the one that got increasingly violent. It ended about 1933 as economic recovery took hold.

The third Klan, and its remnants, is what we see today. It was formed in the 1950's mainly to publicize white supremacy and put blacks in a second-class citizen type category, and to a minor purpose as the 1900's klan -- to scare blacks out of town. Much of this was in response to the growing civil rights movement and a great deal to opposition to Federal forced desegregation. This third klan became very violent and took on more of a terrorist identity.

Unfortunately, they still exist around the country today. This is NOT the same Klan as in the 1860’s.
Short history of the original Klan of 1865: It was called the KuKlux, being modeled after the social society of ancient Greece (Kuklos), and in Greek it means 'social circle' or 'social club'. Only months later was the word 'Klan' added, for alliteration.

After the Civil War, Tennessee was under martial law and ruled by a tyrannical anti-south governor named Parson William Brownlow. He hated all ex-Confederates and their relatives, and installed his henchmen in most of the public offices of the state. Brownlow and his ‘enforcers’ tripled the taxes and began confiscating land from both white and black farmers. This “Reconstruction” was actually the “Re-Destruction” of the South. At this time, women couldn't vote, blacks couldn't vote, and ex-Confederates couldn't vote, leaving only the remaining loyalists and Brownlow's friends who could vote -- and they naturally voted for legislation that would benefit themselves. Brownlow and his thugs ruled Tennessee with an iron hand.

Meanwhile in Pulaski, TN (halfway between Memphis and Nashville) the secret social club KuKlux was formed by six ex-Confederate soldiers (Gen. Forrest was NOT present nor had any idea of its formation). As the weeks wore on, and the oppression continued, these KuKluxers determined that the Pulaski sheriff (Brownlow's puppet) had to be run out of town. The men (now 8 members) dressed up in white sheets and hoods, representing the spirits of their fallen comrades, and also to disguise themselves, since they had no rights and assembly was illegal. The plan worked, and soon it was instituted on Brownlow's tax collector, running him out of town. The KuKluxers quickly restored stability and law & order to Pulaski, and the idea spread to other Tennessee towns. The KuKlux became a protectionist organization for law-abiding blacks and whites. It was not at all directed at Black southerners.

In the next year, 1866, the KKK had grown across the state, and into other states, and the original leaders decided they needed a central respected figure to head up the organization. This would be the best way to restore order to the South and to combat the dishonest carpetbaggers that had descended upon the region. In 1867, a year and a half after the Klan’s formation, General N. B. Forrest was elected in absentia to be the next president, and given the title of Grand Wizard. There is no corroborating evidence, however, that Forrest ever assumed the position or was even a member. The Klan became even more active, and successful, in opposing Brownlow's brigands and in preventing the South from being financially obliterated.

In February 1867 the Tennessee Legislature enfranchised freedmen, and the Radical Republicans established local chapters of the Union League, a political arm of the party, to mobilize the new black voters. Invariably however, these Union Leagues spawned armed squads of roving black gangs intent on bullying and intimidating the white populace. The Union Leagues were led by mostly urban blacks from the North, who had never been slaves – or neighbors of southern whites.

In some respects the KKK became the conservative ex-Confederates' answer to the Union League, a rallying point for white Democrats determined to drive freedmen, radical Republicans, and their allies from the polls. During the spring of 1867 the KKK's innocent beginnings began to give way to intimidation as some of its members sought to keep the Union Leagues at bay, and the KKK was likewise used to keep the peace in many areas.

At the end of 1868, Brownlow resigned as governor, and his successor, Dewitt Senter, quickly instituted reforms to the state, including restoring the right to vote to ex-Confederates. The iron-fist tyranny of Brownlow was over. Law and order was restored.

By this time also, some violent elements had entered the Klan, and Forrest, with his prominence, tried to discourage this. In early 1869, the KuKlux had served its purpose and Brownlow was gone. Forrest, using his well-respected influence, ordered that the Klan be disbanded, and it ceased to exist. The days of the first KKK were at an end.

The 1871 Congressional investigation of the Klan lasted 5 days and interviewed scores of witnesses, including the governor of Tenn. This Congressional committee completely exonerated Gen. Forrest, saying that “there was NO evidence that Forrest was associated with, rode with, or led the KuKlux, whatsoever.”

Gen. Forrest Historical Society,

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