The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) is a highly secretive and very notorious white supremacist organization based in the American South. There have actually been three separate incarnations of the KKK, a result of repeated efforts to curtail the more radical activities of the Klan's members. The precise number of members in the Ku Klux Klan is unknown, especially as there are numerous branches of white supremacist organizations which claim KKK affiliations, but estimates from the 1990s hovered around 5,000 confirmed members.
The origins of the first incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan lie in the Civil War, when white Southerners came to be concerned about their status in an antebellum world. In response, a group of Civil War veterans formed the KKK for the express purpose of promoting white dominance in the South, using acts of terrorism and harassment of black Southerners to accomplish their goals. In addition to harassing the black community, Klan members also threatened civil rights supporters, immigrants, Catholics, members of labor unions, and people of the Jewish faith.
In the 1870s, the Ku Klux Klan was classified as a terrorist organization, in part because of a backlash among Southerners who credited the Klan with a rise in violence in the South. The organization was suppressed, and largely disbanded until 1915, when the film Birth of a Nation mobilized a new generation of white supremacists who developed a variety of tactics, including anonymous appearances in hoods and cloaks, to popularize the Klan. The rise of immigration into the United States fed the growth of the second version of the KKK, as many Americans feared the influence of immigration on traditional American values.
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During the Second World War, the Ku Klux Klan shrank again, only to be reinvigorated in the 1950s and 1960s by the civil rights movement. Members of the Klan conducted lynchings, bombings, and other terrorist activities in an attempt to fight the growing tide of civil rights, and they were implicated in a variety of violent crimes including intimidation and harassment. The organization also became much less socially acceptable as a result of outspoken criticism from religious leaders, government officials, and prominent community members.
The influence of the KKK in the United States has declined radically since the mid-20th century, when many Klansmen were quite open about their activities. Modern versions of the Ku Klux Klan usually focus on promoting so-called “white Christian values,” and some actively condemn the militant terrorism which has been historically associated with the organization. Although the modern KKK may not be staging cross burnings and public lynchings, one could certainly argue that it contributes to the perpetuation of racism in the United States, as well as anti-immigrant sentiments.