The Ku Klux Klan (KKK), or simply the Klan, is the name of three distinct movements in the United States that have advocated extremist reactionary currents such as white supremacy, white nationalism, anti-immigration, and, especially in later iterations, Nordicism, anti-Catholicism, and antisemitism. Historically the KKK used terrorism, both physical assault and murder, against groups or individuals whom they opposed. All three movements have called for the “purification” of American society, and all are considered right-wing extremist organizations.
The first Klan flourished in the Southern United States in the late 1860s, then died out by the early 1870s. It sought to overthrow the Republican state governments in the South during the Reconstruction Era, especially by using violence against African American leaders. With numerous chapters across the South, it was suppressed around 1871, through federal law enforcement. Members made their own, often colorful, costumes: robes, masks, and conical hats, designed to be terrifying, and to hide their identities.
The second group was founded in 1915, and it flourished nationwide in the early and mid-1920s, particularly in urban areas of the Midwest and West. It was rooted in local Protestant communities and opposed Catholics and Jews, and stressed its opposition to the Catholic Church at a time of high immigration from mostly Catholic nations of southern and eastern Europe. This second organization adopted a standard white costume and used code words which were similar to those used by the first Klan, while adding cross burnings and mass parades to intimidate others.
The third and current manifestation of the KKK emerged after 1950, in the form of small, local, unconnected groups that use the KKK name. They have focused on opposition to the Civil Rights Movement, often using violence and murder to suppress activists. It is classified as a hate group by the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center. As of 2016, the Anti-Defamation League puts total Klan membership nationwide at around 3,000, while the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) puts it at 6,000 members total.
The second and third incarnations of the Ku Klux Klan made frequent references to America’s “Anglo-Saxon” blood, hearkening back to 19th-century nativism. Although members of the KKK swear to uphold Christian morality, virtually every Christian denomination has officially denounced the KKK.