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The Ku Klux Klan proper began its existence as an organization in 1866, in Pulaski, Tennessee. It was then a society of young men and its objects were to have fun, make mischief, and play pranks on the public. The members met secretly, wore disguises, and called their officials by fantastic titles. At first the society was purely for social purposes, like boys' clubs elsewhere. There was much tomfoolery, very like the modern "snipe hunting." The initiation of new members afforded enjoyment to the youthful members. The appearance of secrecy and mystery that surrounded the operations of the Klan was very alluring to the uninitiated and there were many applications for membership, and later for the formation of branch Klans. In this way it spread rapidly among the towns of Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi, Georgia and North Carolina. The Pulaski Klan, or Den, was considered headquarters, but the connection between the different Dens was very loose. With the spread of the order and the increase of membership the nature and aims of the order gradually changed. Many persons joined the society believing that it had a serious purpose and could not forget their first impressions. Some joined it foreseeing the possible use that might be made of it. The Klan had had only a short existence when the mischievous members discovered its influence over the negroes who were terribly afraid of the sheeted ghosts. The very need of such an organization in the disordered conditions of the time caused the Dens to begin to exercise the duties of a police patrol for regulating the conduct of thieving and impudent negroes and similar "loyal” whites who belonged to another secret political organization—the Union League.
The transition of the Dens from social organizations to bands of regulators was made the more easily, because there was immediate need for regulators and because, in many parts of the South, there had been, since the surrender of the Confederate armies, bands of white men that served as a neighborhood police or patrol to keep in check the plundering blacks and white desperadoes. These bands, absorbed into the other order, completed the change in the objects and character of the secret organization, and thus ended the first period of the existence of the Ku Klux Klan. By the spring of 1867 it had become a widespread, loosely organized society of regulators.
The second period of the Klan's existence began when in April or May, 1867, in response to requests sent out by the Grand Cyclops of the Pulaski Den, delegates from the Dens of several States met in convention in Nashville. The object of the meeting was to consolidate the order and bring the various Dens under better discipline. Under the former loose organization it had not been possible for the Pulaski Den to exercise any effective control over the other Dens, and some of them had gone far in the direction of violence and disorder. This convention promulgated a constitution for the order which centralized the administration and gave to the general officers the power of effective supervision over the Dens. This constitution was called the “PRESCRIPT of **," and is reproduced below. It was printed in a little brown covered pamphlet of sixteen pages with no place or date on the title page, and with no explanations of the secrets of the order. Copies were sent to the officials of the various divisions who reorganized the Dens according to instructions, and also erected organizations of the county, congressional district, and States. Memphis was the headquarters of the new order, but when copies of the Prescript were sent out to officials there was no indication on envelope or pamphlet of the origin. The original Prescript contains but little except details of organization. There is no general declaration of principles. From the pamphlet itself the uninitiated would be unable to discover anything about the character or objects of the order.
In 1868 there was issued a “REVISED AND AMENDED PRESCRIPT OF
which was printed secretly in the office of the Pulaski Citizen. This is a more lengthy document than the original Prescript and contains a general declaration of principles. By this later constitution the administration of the order was centralized still more and absolute authority given to the chief officer, the Grand Wizard. Most officers, formerly elective, were now made appointive. About this time, the carpetbag legislators of the Southern States began to pass laws making it a penal offense ior the editor of a newspaper to print Ku Klux notices and orders. This made it difficult to maintain communication between the various branches of the order. It is not likely that the revised Prescript was so widely scattered as the original. It is certain that in most Dens, especially outside of Tennessee, only the original was ever used. All of the Ku Klux orders printed in the newspapers were issued under the first constitution as can be seen by comparing the peculiar dating of the orders with the Register of the first Prescript. If any orders were issued under the revised Prescript they were not published in the newspapers since it was illegal to do so.
By 1869 the order had served its purpose and in many places its usefulness was at an end. The war against it had caused the more violent spirits to get control of affairs in many Dens and outrages were committed. The order was used by some as an instrument in their private quarrels. Scoundrels of every stripe found that the name and disguise of the order afforded them protection, and they assumed to do their deviltry in the name of the Klan. The best men were deserting the order. The Grand Wizard, who was vested with absolute power, issued a final decree in March, 1869, disbanding the order and directing the destruction of all papers, prescripts and regalia belonging to the Klan. The members were ordered to desist from further meetings. Thus ended the second or political period of the Klan's existence. The order was strictly obeyed where received and the destruction of Klan property was practically complete. After it was made illegal to publish Ku Klux notices and orders, the Klan began to disintegrate, each Den becoming practically independent. It is certain that, owing to the difficulty of communication, some remote Dens never received the order of disbandment.
The third period in the history of the Ku Klux Klan begins with the collapse in 1869 of the central administration. The Ku Klux movement now divided. On the one hand, the lawless and violent element committed many outrages, and the corresponding element of the Union League, the Radical organization, used the name and disguises of Ku Klux to hide its midnight marrudings. All the meanness that happened was attributed to the Ku Klux Klan. On the other hand, the spirit of resistance to oppression which caused the rise of the Klan still survived, and when local conditions rendered it necessary, the local Den revived and again did its work. The methods used during this period even by the best regulated Dens were harsher than before. There was less scaring of negroes and warning of obnoxious whites, and more beating and shooting of offenders. As long as the carpetbagger was in the land tampering with the negroes, Ku Klux bands were formed to protect the citizens against the results of his teachings. The movement went under various names: The Invisible Empire, Ku Klux Klan, Constitutional Union Guards, Pale Faces, White Brotherhood, White League, Knights of the White Camellia. These orders had no direct connection with each other and even in the Klan there was little or no active connection between Dens, though the spiritual connection was complete, and the Prescript was used only to furnish names for the officers. The elaborate organization provided for in that Constitution was dropped. The spurious Dens were of course simply marauders, white and black, banded together for plunder and outrage, and it was said were usually Radicals. After the revolution lasting from 1874 to 1876 which secured the overthrow of the carpet-bag regime in the Southern States, the conditions which caused the movement no longer existed and the movement collapsed. The bands of outlaws composing the spurious Ku Klux were crushed by the authorities. 1
See J. C. Lester and D. L. Wilson, Ku Klux Klan: Its origin, growth and disbandment, Nashville, 1884. J. M. Beard, Ku Klux sketches, Phila., 1877. W. G. Brown, The lower south in American History (article on Ku Klux movement). The report of the Joint Select Committee to inquire into the condition of affairs in the late insurrecting States, 13 vols., Washington, 1872. American Historical Magazine, January, 1900. Of the original “Prescript" I know of but one copy in existence. That one was given me by the Grand Giant of the Province in Tuscaloosa county, Alabama. An imperfect reprint of it will be found in House Miscellaneous Documents, No. 53, 41st Congress, Second Session, in the report of the contested election case of Sheafe vs. Tillman. This was reprinted again in the thirteenth volume of the Ku Klux testimony. The "Revised and Amended Prescript" was not discovered by the Committee of Congress which made the investigations. A lady in Nashville in 1891 sent a copy of this “Revised" Prescript to Mr. Hugh R. Garden of New York. It was placed in the library of the New York Southern Society and in 1900 this copy came into the possession of Columbia University, when the Society deposited its library with the University. This pamphlet escaped destruction when the Klan was disbanded in Tennessee. Strict orders were issued that all Prescripts should be burnt and hundreds were destroyed. In the merican Histor