They’re the archetypal racists – dressed up in white robes and pointy hoods, setting fire to crosses and calling each other by a range of ridiculous titles. But behind the pageantry and bigotry, there’s an interesting history to the secret society that still hopes to re-establish white dominance in America.
Before comedian W. Kamau Bell explores the new face of the KKK in episode one of SBS 2's United Shades of America, here are ten interesting things you might not have known about "the Klan"...
There have been three different Klans over the years
Three main ones, anyway – over the years they inspired plenty of spin-off splinter groups using the name. The first KKK was launched in the 1860s, as a social club (that unfortunately quickly mutated into a group with a vicious “purpose”).
The second Klan arose in 1915, in the wake of increased Jewish and Catholic immigration – as well as D.W. Griffith’s landmark film, The Birth of a Nation. These were the guys who added cross-burnings and mass parades to the white robes and secret codes of the first group.
Finally, the third Klan – the one whose members appear on exploitative talk shows and hateful Twitter accounts to this day – became a thing in the 1950s, when the civil rights movement was firmly on the American agenda.
The first KKK made it up as they went along
Secret societies thrive on giving the impression that they have been around for centuries, even if that’s just for show. Back when they were just six Confederate soldiers setting up a fellowship for themselves in Tennessee, the Ku Klux Klan invented (or adapted from other sources) a range of rituals and behaviours intended to amuse themselves and baffle outsiders. Basically, they were trolls before they started focusing on using public violence as a political weapon.
Their name is Greek (kind of)
In Greek, “kuklos” means circle, and that’s where “Ku Klux” is thought to come from (it's said they originally opted for “Kuklux”, but changed it to two words soon after). “Klan” is only spelled like that for the alliteration, but essentially they called themselves “The Circle Clan”.
Superman once ruined their real-life fun
In 1946, having infiltrated the KKK’s ranks and learned a fair bit about how they operated, human rights activist Stetson Kennedy contacted the producers of popular radio series The Adventures of Superman. They ended up using the Klan as a villain for the Man of Steel to thwart across 16 episodes, destroying the organisation's carefully cultivated mystique.
David Duke put a more corporate face on the Klan
You can puzzle at his rantings about Hillary Clinton on Twitter in real time, but US politician David Duke’s real gift to the Klan was turning them corporate.
Straight out of uni, he founded the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan (KKKK), and he and his followers were responsible for such innovations as changing the title Grand Wizard to National Director and swapping the white robes for professional suits. He tried to pivot the organisation’s focus to legal and non-violent means of changing the nation, but quit in 1980 to form the National Association for the Advancement of White People.
They hate the Westboro Baptist Church as much as everyone else
You might think two of the world’s best-known hate groups would have a lot in common, but it turns out that the KKK aren’t the biggest fans of people who picket soldiers’ funerals. It makes sense, given the organisation’s military history, but it’s still weird to think of white supremacists and hard-core fundamentalists throwing urine at each other.
They've always been about the marketing
Back in the second incarnation of the Klan, they made their money by selling merch – specifically, those famous robes. Later, in the 1920s, they used summer holidays to indoctrinate Texans in the superiority of the white race with the Kool Koast Kamp, "the healthiest road to the koolest summer". Today, they’re very active on social media, and host a white pride TV show online.
They attempted to set up their own country
In 1981, some members of the Klan had had enough. So they did what any right-thinking organisation would do, and tried to form their own country. The plan involved restoring deposed prime minister Patrick John to power on the island of Dominica, then establishing a racially pure paradise in the Caribbean. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t pan out, and the ringleaders were arrested and charged with violating the Neutrality Act (which makes it an offence to wage war against any country at peace with the US).
They've had black and Jewish members
The KKK has been infiltrated by an undercover policeman who was black, promoted a Jewish man to the post of Grand Dragon in New York and ended up sponsoring a stretch of highway that was then named after civil rights activist Rosa Parks (in some epic trolling from Missouri politicians). So, you’d have to say their vetting processes haven’t historically been what you’d call “air-tight”.
Forrest Gump was named after the KKK's first Grand Wizard
Nathan Bedford Forrest, an ancestor of the character brought to life by Tom Hanks, is where Forrest Gump got his unusual first name. The KKK’s first-ever Grand Wizard was a Confederate general in the American Civil War, and by all accounts a brutal, intelligent and innovative man – as well as a slave trader.
Later in life, he left the KKK and distanced himself from their beliefs. In 1875, he even gave a speech on racial reconciliation to an audience of black Southerners – the Order of Pole-Bearers Association.
United Shades of America starts Thursday, 15 September at 9:30pm (AEST) on SBS 2. After they air, episodes will be available on SBS On Demand.