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Six restless young men formed the Ku Klux Klan in a Pulaski, Tennessee law office in the fall of 1866. Originally formed as a social club, early Klansmen raised fear and anxiety by riding about the countryside at night, dressed in sheets and hoods, frightening rural blacks. Reconstruction Southerners, depressed over military defeat and angry at the military occupation of the Union Army, quickly populated the Klan as it spread throughout the former Confederate states. Alabama's northern and western counties became particularly strong Klan areas, but the group appeared as far south as Mobile. Black Belt whites, though, preferred to entrust the preservation of white supremacy to Klan-like groups such as the Knights of the White Camelia, the White Brotherhood, the White League, and the Men of Peace.
During Reconstruction, the group claimed 12,000 members in Alabamaabout one in every nine white votersalthough some counties, such as Madison, boasted of having as many as 800 Knights. More importantly, though, the KKK enjoyed deep and wide-spread support from many whites, including women and children. Democratic newspapers printed Klan advertisements, songs, jokes, and macabre warnings, and published favorable editorials. One historian claimed that every white man, woman, and child in Alabama was in league with the Reconstruction Klan. Despite the obvious exaggeration of this statement, it resonates because the Klan did enjoy overwhelming support and, in April 1867, gained increased legitimacy when Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest agreed to serve as imperial wizard of the empire. Other Confederate generals followed the example by serving as state Klan leaders.
Most Alabama dens were made up of younger men, partially because of the physical nature of Ku Kluxing, but also because many of them felt they had "missed out" on the war. Still, many dens enjoyed considerable support from older and prominent citizens who "continued to smile to themselves or quietly applaud whenever some `uppity' black or `rascally' carpetbagger received his just dues." Mystery was part and parcel of the order, largely to instill fear. Klan members wore long flowing white robes, high conical hoods, and adorned themselves with stars, moons, skulls and crossbones.
Leading Democrats supported the Klan, and the party was largely indistinguishable from it. Klansmen beat, maimed, intimidated, and even killed Republicans of both colors who challenged them at the polls, or blacks and whites who tested the bounds of white supremacy by providing education or relief to the black freedmen. After 1870, federal legislation that empowered officials to punish Klan atrocities, South Carolina's suspension of habeas corpus and legal proceedings against hundreds of Klansmen, and the Amnesty Act that refranchised former Confederates encouraged the decline of Ku Kluxism. But it was the 1874 triumph of Alabama's Democratic party in "redeeming" the state from Republican rule that finally made the KKK obsolete.
Early scholars interpreted the Klan as a wholly legitimate response to the post-war depredations of a grasping federal government, a vindictive North, greedy carpetbaggers and scalawags, and ignorant freedmen. This "Dunning School" of historiography has long been overturned, and historical consensus agrees that the Reconstruction Klan functioned as the terrorist arm of the Southern Democratic party, waging a kind of guerilla warfare after Appomattox that targeted freed blacks who sought to exercise their newfound freedoms as well as any whites, Northern or Southern, who would assist them. Congress documented over a thousand Klan-committed killings in the South during Reconstructionat least 109 of them in Alabama.