The last movie I saw with my teenage daughter was The Birth of a Nation. We were on our feet for most of the two and a half hour running time, yelling at the screen in gleeful support of the Ku Klux Klan. Since then, I’ve been meaning to read up on the history of the organization that adopted the name and the views of one of its most notorious leaders, Nathan Bedford Forrest.

Forrest was born just a few years after the American Revolution. His family were prominent figures in the South, and he grew up around the idea that whites were superior to blacks and that the system should reward whites for their “bravery” in subjugating the blacks. In 1838, at the age of 19, he was elected to serve in the Florida legislature, but was later expelled for his involvement with the KKK. He went on to lead the organization for the next two decades, suppressing political dissent with terror and killing hundreds of people in the process. Forrest was also responsible for instigating numerous church burnings, which he regarded as “domestic terrorism.”

In all the years since, it seems like every other week there’s another story about a hate group breaking out in flames. From the Atlanta child murders to the Oklahoma City bombing, there are countless examples of groups which were inspired by or affiliated with the KKK taking up arms against their perceived enemies.

As we make our way through this pandemic, it’s important for us to keep in mind the history of hate groups. While we might be tempted to believe that people are just following the crowds and the propaganda of the moment, it’s important to understand that a lot of hatred comes from a place of privilege and power, and it usually has a long history.

The Rise Of The Modern American Hate Group

The first real outbreak of “hate groups” in America took place in the aftermath of the Civil War. White former Confederates, who had been denied social and political power for so long, tried to take it back by any means necessary. They were particularly incensed by the 13th Amendment, which was intended to abolish slavery and give African Americans citizenship. Instead, it gave them the right to vote, leading many to believe that their fight against the Union was all about disenfranchisement. This was most definitely the case when it came to the KKK, which began as a paramilitary group devoted to protecting the white race and suppressing the black vote.

The group was founded in 1868 by a Confederate colonel named William T. Simmons. According to Karen L. Cox’s book The History of the Ku Klux Klan, Simmons came up with the idea after touring the South for a summer and witnessing the blatant racism there. Inspired by the unification of Italy and the success of the People’s Party in German elections, the colonel decided to create a similar political movement in the U.S. The original name of the KKK was the “Secret and Patriotic Order of the Ku Klux Klan,” but it was changed to the “Klansmen” in 1869. The name change was meant to make it sound like a genteel civic group, like the Elks or the Masons, but with a racist edge. After all, they wanted to keep the “secret” part of their identity hidden from the general public.

Simmons immediately began recruiting members for his organization, and by the summer of 1871, he had 1,200 men under his command. Simmons was a brilliant man who had a lot of experience in running spies, infiltrating unions, and generally being a thorn in the side of the radical Republicans, who were trying to dismantle the Confederacy. He used his new group to great effect, coordinating vigilante actions as well as illegal activities, which included election fraud and intimidation. When the political tide turned against him and his ilk, he moved to Canada, where he lived for the rest of his life. He died in 1922 at the age of 86, and his body was brought back to America for burial. His tombstone is inscribed with the Latin phrase “Hate To Triumph.”

The Terror Of The Terrifying Tarrants

As the 20th century progressed, the term “hate group” came to mean not just a group devoted to racial hatred but also one which advocated violence and anarchy. Some, but not all, hate groups turned to the bomb as a way to make their point. One of the first recorded incidents of a hate group using a bomb took place in Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1898. The Tarrants, a self-styled “Family Patrol,” were outraged that a black man was serving as mayor of the town. To remedy this situation, Orval P. Tarrant decided to “bring the war home,” as he put it, by bombing the offices of the black-owned newspaper which was supporting the town’s Democratic administration. Fortunately, no one was injured in the blast, but Tarrant was later arrested and imprisoned for his actions. Although he died in 1921, his legacy live on.

The Roaring 20s And The Rise Of The Modern American Skinhead Movement

It’s worth checking out the various iterations of the KKK during the early 20th century, as they effectively controlled the laws, politics, and society in the south for decades. The first half of the 20th century was a time of great political and social upheaval, and a whole lot of new hate groups popped up to represent the shifting power dynamics of the time. One of the most prominent of these groups was the Skinheads, named after their casual dress code which often featured brown or black clothing combined with red, white, and blue jumpers. These days, the word “Skinhead” usually refers to a white supremacist who favors British football teams and thinks that “negros” are a biological inferior strain of humanity, but in the early 20th century, it mostly referred to someone who was opposed to African American political activists and to the social reforms which were happening in the country at the time.

The early 20th century was also the height of the Klan’s power in the South, and many of the hate groups which sprang up in its wake tried to emulate its success. One of the first was the Aryan Circle, whose members were generally young men who had been to technical colleges or state universities in the North. As the group’s website proudly proclaims, “we believe that education, hard work, and proper Christian values will allow [white] Americans to achieve their full potential and leave a better world for their children.”

The Aryan Circle tried to implement many of the same racist policies as the KKK, and it also engaged in terrorist activities, including a bombing in Chicago, which killed four people and wounded over 50. Interestingly, many of the victims were Polish, so it seems that a lot of the ethnic tension in the city was being played out in the streets. In any case, the Aryan Circle was responsible for at least 10 murders and over 50 bombings, so it’s fair to say that they were a terrifying organization. After being declared a terrorist group and being forced to change its name twice due to anti-Klan sentiment, the group was largely dormant until the late 1930s, when it was reformed and renamed the “Christian Defense League.” Today, while it exists mainly online, the CDL claims that it is devoted to preserving “white Christian civilization.”

The Coming Of Age Of The Antifascist

By the time that the Great Depression hit, the American economy was on the mend, and many white Americans, particularly those in the south, got pretty confident that the “troubles” which they had experienced were things of the past. This emboldened them to speak their minds, and many fascists and members of the far right started popping up everywhere. The most prominent of these were the followers of a man named William Dudley Pelham, known as “Captain America,” whose birthday is now recognized as “Captain America Day.”

In the summer of 1934, Pelham founded the group Weymannia, named after himself and his family, and the organization quickly became a magnet for people looking to promote white supremacy. The group’s purpose was to “fight ruthlessly against the Marxist doctrine; to preserve the purity of the white race… to crush forever the Jewish plot to exterminate the white race and gain worldwide domination by Judaism,” and it openly promoted Nazi ideology.