The KKK and the End of Reconstruction

Lesson Content

Inquire: How did the Post-Reconstruction South resemble the Antebellum South?


Between 644,000 and 750,000 soldiers died in the Civil War, in addition to thousands of civilians who also perished. Towns and cities were destroyed, the very fabric of American government was torn apart, and the economic costs incurred were almost incalculable.

Yet, as Reconstruction came to a close in 1876, concrete changes in the South were hard to recognize. Sharecropping had replaced slavery, not largely improving the fates of many poor African Americans. In addition, paramilitary organizations, Black Codes, and Jim Crow laws effectively denied the newly freed African Americans of most of their rights and liberties and reduced them again to a position of subservience in the South.

Was all the death and sacrifice for naught?


Big Question

In what ways were African Americans better off in the South after Reconstruction?

Watch: Building Communities, Rebuilding Relationships

Read: The Invisible Empire of the South


Paramilitary white-supremacist terror organizations in the South helped bring about the collapse of Reconstruction, using violence as their primary weapon. The “Invisible Empire of the South,” or the Ku Klux Klan, stands as the most notorious. The Klan was founded in 1866 as an oath-bound fraternal order of Confederate veterans in Tennessee, with former Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest as its first leader. The organization devised elaborate rituals and grandiose names for its ranking members: Grand Wizard, Grand Dragon, Grand Titan, and Grand Cyclops. Soon, however, this fraternal organization evolved into a vigilante terrorist group that vented collective frustration over losing the war and Radical Reconstruction through acts of intimidation and violence.

The Ku Klux Klan

DecorativeThe Klan terrorized newly freed blacks to deter them from exercising their citizenship rights and freedoms. Other anti-black vigilante groups in the South began to adopt the Klan name and perpetrate acts of unspeakable violence against anyone they considered involved with Reconstruction. Indeed, as historians have noted, Klan units in the South operated autonomously and with a variety of motives. Some may have sincerely believed (albeit incorrectly) that they were righting wrongs; others were merely satisfying their lurid desires for violence.

The Klu Klux Klan was not the only racist vigilante organization in operation in the South. The Red Shirts from Mississippi and two Louisiana organizations — the Knights of the White Camelia and the White League — were also created at this time. The Klan and similar organizations worked as an extension of the Democratic Party to help win elections.

The Klan in the North vs. the South

Despite the great variety in Klan membership, on the whole, the group tended to direct its attention toward persecuting freed people and people they considered carpetbaggers, a term of abuse applied to Northerners accused of having come to the South to acquire wealth through political power at the expense of Southerners. The colorful term captured the Southerners’ disdain and reflected the common assumption that these men, sensing great opportunity, packed up all their worldly possessions in carpetbags (a then-popular type of luggage) and made their way to the South. Implied in this definition is the notion that these men came from little and were thus shiftless wanderers motivated only by the desire for quick money.

In reality, these Northerners tended to be young, idealistic, often well-educated men who responded to Northern campaigns urging them to lead the South’s modernization. But, the image of them as swindlers, taking advantage of the South in its time of need, resonated with a white Southern population aggrieved by loss and economic decline. Southern whites who supported Reconstruction, known as scalawags, also generated great hostility and were seen as traitors to the South. They, too, became targets of the Klan and similar groups.

To restore white supremacy and overturn Republican state governments in the South, the Klan seized on this pervasive, but largely fictional, narrative of the Northern carpetbagger. To preserve a white-dominated society, Klan members punished blacks for acting to improve their station in life or engaging in behaviors the Klan characterized as “uppity.” To prevent freed people from gaining an education, the Klan burned public schools. In an effort to stop blacks from voting, the Klan murdered, whipped, and otherwise intimidated freed people and their white supporters. It wasn’t uncommon for Klan members to intimidate Union League members and Freedmen’s Bureau workers. The Klan even perpetrated acts of political assassination, killing a sitting U.S. congressman from Arkansas and three state congressmen from South Carolina.

Klan tactics included riding out to victims’ houses, masked and armed, and firing into them or burning them down. Other tactics relied more on the threat of violence, such as in Mississippi where 50 masked Klansmen rode out to a local schoolteacher’s house to express their displeasure with the school tax and to suggest that she leave town. Other tactics intimidated through imaginative trickery; one such method was to dress up as ghosts of slain Confederate soldiers and stage stunts designed to convince their victims of the Klan’s supernatural abilities.

DecorativeRegardless of the method, the general goal of reinstating white supremacy as a foundational principle of American democracy and returning the South to a situation that largely resembled Antebellum conditions remained a constant. The Klan used its power to attempt to eliminate black economic independence, decimate black citizens’ political rights, reclaim white dominance over black women’s bodies and black men’s masculinity, tear apart black communities, and return black citizens to earlier patterns of economic and political subservience and social deference. In this, they were largely successful.

However, the president and Congress were not indifferent to such violence, and they worked to bring it to an end. In 1870, at the insistence of North Carolina’s governor, President Grant told Congress to investigate the Klan. In response, Congress in 1871 created the Joint Select Committee to Inquire into the Condition of Affairs in the Late Insurrectionary States. The committee took testimony from freed people in the South and, in 1872, published a 13-volume report on the tactics the Klan used to derail democracy in the South through the use of violence.

Congress also passed a series of three laws designed to stamp out the Klan. Passed in 1870 and 1871, the Enforcement Acts or “Force Acts” were designed to outlaw intimidation at the polls and to give the federal government the power to prosecute crimes against freed people in federal, rather than state, courts. Congress believed that this last step, a provision in the third Enforcement Act, also called the Ku Klux Klan Act, was necessary in order to ensure that trials would not be decided in Southern states by white juries friendly to the Klan. The act also allowed the president to impose martial law in areas controlled by the Klan and specifically gave President Grant the power to suspend the writ of habeas corpus, a continuation of the wartime power granted to President Lincoln. The suspension meant individuals suspected of engaging in Klan activity could be jailed indefinitely.

DecorativePresident Grant made frequent use of the powers granted to him by Congress, especially in South Carolina where federal troops imposed martial law in nine counties in an effort to derail Klan activities. However, the federal government faced entrenched local organizations and a white population firmly opposed to Radical Reconstruction. Changes came slowly, or not at all, and disillusionment set in. After 1872, federal government efforts to put down paramilitary terror in the South faded.

Reflect: Was Reconstruction Effective?


Based on everything you have learned about Reconstruction, in your opinion, was it effective?

Expand: “Redeemers” and Redemption - The End Of Reconstruction


While the president and Congress may have seen the Klan and other clandestine, white supremacist terrorist organizations as a threat to the stability and progress in the South, many Southern whites saw them as an instrument of order in a world turned upside down. Many white Southerners felt humiliated by the process of Radical Reconstruction and the way Republicans had upended Southern society, placing black men in positions of authority while taxing large landowners to pay for the education of former slaves. Those committed to rolling back the tide of Radical Reconstruction in the South called themselves redeemers, a label that expressed their desire to redeem their states from Northern control and to restore the Antebellum social order. The redeemers largely represented the Democratic Party in the South and worked tirelessly to end what they saw as an era of “negro misrule.” By 1877, they had succeeded in bringing about the “redemption” of the South, effectively destroying the dream of Radical Reconstruction.

Republicans Lose Their Grip

Although Ulysses S. Grant won a second term in the Presidential Election of 1872, the Republican grip on national political power began to slip in the early 1870s. Three major events undermined Republican control. First, in 1873, the United States experienced the start of a long economic downturn, the result of Europe’s economic instability that spread to the United States. In the fall of 1873, the bank of Jay Cooke & Company failed to meet its financial obligations and went bankrupt, setting off panic in the American financial market. An economic depression ensued, which Democrats blamed on Republicans and which lasted much of the decade.

DecorativeSecond, the Republican Party experienced internal squabbles and divided into two factions. Some Republicans began to question the expansive role of the federal government, arguing for limiting the size and scope of federal initiatives. These advocates, known as Liberal Republicans because they followed classical liberalism in championing small government, formed their own breakaway party. Their ideas changed the nature of the debate over Reconstruction by challenging its reliance on federal aid to enforce change in the South. Such Republicans argued for downsizing Reconstruction efforts.

Third, the Grant administration became mired in scandals, further tarnishing the Republicans’ image. One scandal arose over the siphoning off of money from whiskey taxes. The “Whiskey Ring,” as it was called, involved people at the highest levels of the Grant administration, including the president’s personal secretary. Another scandal entangled Crédit Mobilier of America, a construction company and part of the important French Crédit Mobilier banking company. The Union Pacific Railroad company, created by the federal government during the Civil War to construct a transcontinental railroad, paid Crédit Mobilier to build the railroad; however, Crédit Mobilier used the funds it received to buy Union Pacific Railroad bonds and resell them at a huge profit. Again, Grant’s administration was deeply involved. Some members of Congress and Vice President Schuyler Colfax had accepted funds from Crédit Mobilier in return for forestalling an inquiry. When the scam was exposed in 1872, Democratic opponents of Reconstruction pointed to Crédit Mobilier as an example of government corruption and evidence that a smaller federal government would be better.

The Democratic Party in the South made significant advances in the 1870s in its efforts to wrest political control from the Republican-dominated state governments. The Ku Klux Klan, as well as other paramilitary groups in the South, often operated as military wings of the Democratic Party in former Confederate states. In one notorious episode following a contested 1872 gubernatorial election in Louisiana, as many as 150 Republican freedmen were killed at the Colfax courthouse by armed members of the Democratic Party, even as many of them tried to surrender.

DecorativeIn other areas of the South, the Democratic Party gained control over state politics. Texas came under Democratic control by 1873, and Alabama and Arkansas followed suit. Nationally, Democrats gained ground too, securing control of the House of Representatives for the first time since before the Civil War in 1874. In this election, every Southern state (with the exception of Florida, South Carolina, and Louisiana, where federal troops still remained) also went to the Democratic Party and restored white supremacy. White Southerners everywhere celebrated their “redemption” from Radical Republican rule.

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Lesson Resources

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Additional Resources and Readings

Reconstruction and 1876: Crash Course US History #22

A Crash Course video describing Reconstruction following the Civil War

Debt Slavery: The Forgotten History of Sharecropping

An article, by the Hampton Institute, describing the role of sharecropping during Reconstruction and expanding on gender roles and family systems withheld from enslaved people prior to Reconstruction

Reconstruction Era: 1865-1877

A list of resources, compiled by Howard University, allowing you to continue exploring the impact of Reconstruction

Sharecropping, Slavery By Another Name

An article and video discussing the differences and similarities of slavery and sharecropping

MOOC | The Redeemers | The Civil War and Reconstruction, 1865-1890

A ColumbiaLearn video discussing the long-term economic and intellectual impact of the Civil War and Reconstruction

The Compromise Of 1877

An article discussing the Presidential Election of 1876, one of the most controversial presidential elections in U.S. history, and what is usually considered the end of the Reconstruction era

Lesson Glossary


AJAX progress indicator
  • carpetbaggers
    a term of abuse applied to Northerners accused of having come to the South to acquire wealth through political power at the expense of Southerners
  • Enforcement Acts
    three bills passed by Congress in order to protect African Americans' right to vote, to hold office, to serve on juries, and to generally receive equal protections under the law
  • Ku Klux Klan
    a secret organization of white Protestant Americans, mainly in the South, who use violence against black people, Jewish people, and other minority groups
  • Ku Klux Klan Act
    a provision within the Enforcement Acts that allowed the federal government to prosecute crimes against freed people in federal, rather than state, courts in hopes to ensure that trials would not be decided in Southern states by white juries friendly to the Klan
  • Liberal Republicans
    a breakaway party from the Republicans who questioned the expansive role of the federal government and argued for limiting the size and scope of federal initiatives during Reconstruction
  • redeemers
    a term for Southerners who wanted to reverse the effects of Radical Reconstruction, repel Northern control, and restore the Antebellum social order
  • scalawags
    a derisive term for white Southerners who collaborated with Northern Republicans during Reconstruction
  • sharecropping
    a type of economy in the South during Reconstruction that forced former slaves to work for low wages or be in debt

License and Citations

Content License

Lesson Content:

Authored and curated by Jay Reynolds for The TEL Library. CC BY NC SA 4.0

Adapted Content:

Title: The Collapse of Reconstruction – Rebuilding Black Communities: Rice University, OpenStax CNX. License: CC BY 4.0

Media Sources

DecorativeJim Crow JubileeVariousWikimedia CommonsPublic Domain
DecorativeColfax County Courthouse (Nebraska) from NEAmmodramusWikimedia CommonsPublic Domain
DecorativeThe great financial panicVariousWikimedia CommonsPublic Domain
DecorativePresident Ulysses S. GrantMathew BradyWikimedia CommonsPublic Domain
DecorativeModernSamsonThomas NastWikimedia CommonsPublic Domain
DecorativeKu Klux Klan members, March 17, 1922Voice of AmericaWikimedia CommonsPublic Domain