Primary Source: The Rise of the Ku Klux Klan

The Ku Klux Klan was organized in 1867 as a response to Reconstruction. It was composed of white men who wanted to re-establish white supremacy and to limit the legal and social rights of black Americans. Although the Klan was widespread across the South, it was not a national organization; rather the Klan was composed of local branches which acted independently.

Across the South, the Ku Klux Klan used violence and terror against free black people and sympathetic white people. The goal of the Klan was to intimidate black people and prevent them from voting, holding political office, or establishing successful businesses. The Klan used all types of violence, including murder, whipping, and the destruction of property.

John Patterson Green was an black attorney, legislator, and writer born to free parents in New Bern, North Carolina. In 1857, his father died, and his mother left North Carolina for Cleveland, Ohio. As an adult, Green became a lawyer and campaigned for the Republican Party. He lived in South Carolina for two years after the Civil War before returning to Ohio. He served as justice of the peace in Cleveland, was elected a representative in the lower house of the Ohio state legislature, and was the first black man to be elected to the Ohio State Senate.

In this excerpt from his book, Recollections of the Inhabitants, Localities, Superstitions, and Ku klux Outrages of the Carolinas. By a “Carpet-Bagger” Who Was Born and Lived There, Patterson described the violence he witnessed while living in South Carolina after the Civil War. In the book’s title, he describes himself as a “carpetbagger,” a Northerner who packed up his things in a suitcase made of old carpet and headed south after the war. His use of the term suggests that he by the time he wrote the book, in 1880, no longer thought of himself as a southerner at all.

We had only proceeded a short distance further on our way, when we were confronted by the charred remains of what had been a dwelling house.

"What's that?" I asked for the hundredth time, addressing Jones.

"That" said he, "is the work of the Ku-Klux-Klan. The man who lived there was nominated for an office of inconsiderable importance; but being a "Yankee" and for that reason displeasing to his Democratic neighbors, he was warned to leave the country; and failing to heed the notice, he was taken from his house one night by a body of masked men, given a coat of tar and feathersTar and feathering was a common type of mob violence in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. A person was stripped of his clothing, and hot tar was poured over his body, followed by feathers. The tar cooled and stuck to the person’s skin. In order to remove the tar and feathers, a person had to pull the tar off in patches, and it often removed part of his skin. It was incredibly painful and left the person scarred and disfigured., and twenty-four hours in which to make his escape. After that treatment he hesitated no longer, but left for parts unknown, glad enough to be spared his life. On the following night his house, with all its contents, were burned to the ground, and left in the condition you now see it."

Further inquiry only tended to strengthen the truth of Jones' statement; not only this but the additional fact that throughout the region we were then traversing, there was a thoroughly organized association of men under the name given above. The Ku-Klux-Klan was an organization conceived in sin, and born in iniquity; based not so much upon any wrongs or oppression that its members were actually suffering at the hands of the members of the newly organized government of the State, as upon an imagined violence done to "all their preconceived opinions and prejudices," in the language of our Southern correspondent, whose letter we have given in a previous chapter. One of those opinions was that the South ought to have been left alone to secede from the Union of these States, and not restrained by the vigorous North; hence a violence had been done the South in restraining her. Another opinion was that, after having been scourged back into the line of States, South Carolina ought to have been given loose reins to reconstruct herself, and make her own laws; even though their tendency were such as to crush out every spark of civil life from the freedmen, deprive them of their newly acquired political privileges, and relegate them to the condition of "corn-field darkies," with overseers to crack their whips over their heads, and not even a master to say them nay. Violence had been done to their "preconceived opinions" by denying them this privilege, and to cap the climax, their "preconceived prejudices" had been violated by permitting "corn-field darkies and army sutlers" to hold offices of emolument and trust, notwithstanding the fact they utterly refused to fraternize with them even politically, and reap a portion of the benefits accruing there-from. There was no reasonable cause of complaint existing on the part of the people of that State that could not have been adjusted by lawful means entirely within their power and under their control; and that, in any one of our more considerate States of the North would have been modified without resort to violence and incendiarismIncendiary words or actions — that is, words or actions designed to promote anger or violence.. Not so with these impulsive people, however. "Their preconceived opinions and prejudices" had been violated, and now, just as when the Republican party of the North had violated them by electing Abraham Lincoln to the Presidential chair, nothing short of blood would wipe out the stain.

They regarded the "carpet-bagger" as the common foe, and, as a consequence, all arguments that could be lavished upon him, having in view his conversion to their doctrines, would be worse than wasted. Hence they let him severely alone, and in his state of ostracism he was left to fraternize with "corn-field darkies" or else live the life of a hermit. He chose the former.

But to the colored men they poured forth their souls in all the eloquence at their command, in the vain effort to lure them back again to all their former felicities. In this attempt as well they were doomed to disappointment, for their colored brethren had lived among them long enough to understand the difference between freedom and slavery, and took no heed of their prayers and entreaties. The colored men were then, as now, true to the cause of the Union. They had prayed for it; they had fought for it; and now they would vote for it, and not all the fair promises of their former masters, nor even the reputed wealth of the Indies could swerve them one inch from their recognized path of duty. I have known freedmen to walk twenty miles, in a thinly populated region, to the nearest voting precinct to cast their ballots, even when they knew that such action on their part widened the breach between them and their employers and jeopardized their dearest interests, so true were they to the principles which they had espoused. Being foiled in their efforts to coax or scare their former slaves into a support of their "preconceived opinions and prejudices," and being fully determined to yield no jot or tittle to the policy pursued by the Republican party, as a last resort, and one more in consonance with their tastes, inclinations and early training, they adopted the policy now known as ku-klux-ism--a policy of cowardice, perjury, rapine and murder; one ill-suited to any people other than such as are found in the South among her half civilized white population.

The "klan" was thoroughly organized, having a ritual, signs, grips and passwords. They wore masks to conceal their cowardly faces, and bound each other with a solemn oath not to reveal the name of any member, nor divulge any secret of the order.

Their name, "Ku-Klux-Klan," is said to have been suggested to them by the sound made in the act of cocking and discharging the rifles and shot-guns carried by them--the first two syllables being repeated in a subdued tone of voice, as Ku Klux, represented the cocking of the piece; while the last syllable, Klan, being repeated with emphasis, betokened its discharge.

The objects of the Klan, as have been already hinted at, were to banish the so-called "carpet baggers" from the State, restore the freedmen to positions of serfdom under their former masters, and regain control of the government of the State. They carried a knife in one hand and a torch in the other, while in their belt they wore a revolver. The bull-whip and raw-hide were also instruments of their torture, and made to produce arguments which none dared refute. In their expeditions they spared neither age, sex nor color, and the reputation of being a "black republican" was all that was needed to place one under the ban of their condemnation.

Source Citation: 

Green, John Patterson. Recollections of the Inhabitants, Localities, Superstitions, and KuKlux Outrages of the Carolinas. By a "Carpet-Bagger" Who Was Born and Lived There. [Cleveland?]: [s.n.], 1880.

Published online by Documenting the American South. University Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.



Credit text

John Patterson Green, Recollections of the Inhabitants, Localities, Superstitions, and Ku klux Outrages of the Carolinas. (n.p., 1880), pp. 132–137.


cartoon from Harper’s Weekly

This cartoon from Harper’s Weekly shows an African American killed by the Ku Klux Klan. The caption reads “One Vote Less.”

Illustration depicting Ku Klux Klan costumes in North Carolina circa 1870.