Fact Checkers Cover for Democratic Party’s Sordid History With the Ku Klux Klan
During a June 7th Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on white supremacy and domestic terrorism, U.S. Senator Ted Cruz stated that:
- the Ku Klux Klan “was formed by elected Democrats.”
- Klan “leadership was almost entirely elected Democrats.”
- today’s Democrats “try very hard to erase the history” of their party’s involvement with the Klan.
- today’s Democrats “politicize acts of violence.”
Conversely, “fact checkers” like PolitiFact and the Associated Press have repeatedly argued that the Democratic Party did not found the Klan, played a limited role in it, and that racist southerners fled to the Republican Party after 1964.
In reality, Cruz’s statements are a much closer reflection of the facts.
Origins & Leadership
The AP and PolitiFact correctly state that the Klan was started by a group of Confederate veterans in Pulaski, Tennessee as a non-violent, grassroots social club without political motivations.
What the AP and PolitiFact fail to acknowledge is that the Klan’s 1865–66 founding as a social club does not mark the beginning of the Klan as it is known today. Per the 1971 academic book White Terror: The Ku Klux Klan Conspiracy and Southern Reconstruction, the “real beginning” of the “Ku Klux Klan conspiracy” occurred at an 1867 meeting in Nashville that consolidated the Klan.
As explained by an 1884 book written by a founding member of the Klan, this meeting bound the “isolated dens together” with “unity of purpose and concert of action” to supposedly reign in rogue Klansmen that had turned violent toward black people just a year after the group’s founding. However, White Terror points out that if Klan leaders really wanted to eliminate violence, they would have disbanded altogether. Instead, they sought “tighter organization” and recruited leaders “of far greater prestige and authority whose influence extended throughout the state” — primarily ex-Confederate generals and Democratic politicians.
An investigation published by the Illinois General Assembly in 1976 explains that after the Klan “transformed into a political organization,” violence became more widespread under Democrat leadership. The men that guided the Klan’s reorganization and subsequent growth included:
- Nathan Bedford Forrest — first Grand Wizard of the Klan and a Democratic Memphis alderman.
- John W. Morton — Grand Cyclops of the Nashville Klan and a Democrat who became the Tennessee Secretary of State.
- John B. Gordon — head of the Georgia Klan and a Democratic governor and senator.
- George G. Dibrell — Deputy Grand Titan of the Klan and a Democratic congressman from Tennessee.
- Dudley M. DuBose — Grand Titan of the Klan’s Fifth Congressional District and a Democratic congressman from Georgia.
- Fredrick N. Strudwick — Klan leader in North Carolina and a Democratic state representative.
- George W. Gordon — Klan leader and a Democratic congressman from Tennessee.
- John C. Brown — “probable leader” of the Klan and a Democratic governor of Tennessee.
- Edmund Pettus — Grand Dragon of the Alabama Klan and a Democratic senator from Alabama.
However, the Illinois investigation also found that “central control over the actions of the various local Klan groups did not really exist,” and some of the figureheads above began “dropping out” to distance themselves from local terrorism. For example, Nathan Bedford Forrest ordered the Klan disbanded in 1869 because he claimed a “few disobedient and bad men” had infiltrated the Klan, disgracing its “good name and honorable reputation.”
On the other hand, some prominent Democrats remained loyal to the Klan’s violent activities. For example, Fredrick Strudwick led a Klan attempt to assassinate a Republican state senator and was later elected as a Democrat to the North Carolina state legislature.
Likewise, the Red Shirts — a “paramilitary extension” of the Democratic Party and essentially the “Klan in a different uniform” — attacked a black militia in 1867 for refusing to surrender their guns to the leader of another militia that “had no legal right” to the weaponry. One participating Red Shirt leader named “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman became the Democratic Governor of South Carolina and a U.S. Senator. He recalled what became known as the Hamburg Massacre (in Edgefield county) with pride:
- White men in Edgefield planned “to seize upon the first opportunity” to “provoke a riot and teach the Negroes a lesson” because they believed that “nothing but bloodshed and a good deal of it” could succeed in “redeeming the state from negro and carpet bag rule.”
- The goal “of our visit to Hamburg was to strike terror,” and “seven dead negros lying stark and stiff, certainly had its effect.”
- The massacred black people were “offered up as a sacrifice to the fanatical teachings and fiendish hate of those who sought to substitute the rule of the African for that of the Caucasian in South Carolina.”
The AP reports that “many” Democrats joined the Klan, and PolitiFact reports “some” did and that Nathan Forrest spoke at a Democratic National Convention, but this is the extent of their admissions of Democrats’ membership in the Klan.
Even though some individual Democrats denounced the violence of the Klan, Democratic politicians and their media allies consistently covered up for it.
A 2011 paper in The Journal of Southern History explains that Democratic newspapers published “blanket denials” of the Klan’s existence “during and after its most active period of violence.” This is exemplified by the New York Tribune’s criticism of Democratic papers in 1868 for dismissing the Klan as a “mythical maggot of distempered Republican brains.” Democratic politicians followed suit, including:
- Democratic Governor Robert Lindsay, who testified before Congress in 1871 that “reported outrages by Ku-Klux or disguised persons had ceased for the last two years” in Alabama.
- former Democratic Governor John Stevenson who claimed in 1871 that there was “no evidence” of “any secret political organization” in Kentucky.
Such denials were pervasive throughout the Democratic Party and media. As documented by White Terror:
- “Most Democrats asserted that no regular or continuing Ku Klux organization existed in their counties, or in the state,” and they “denied even more vehemently that the disguised bands were politically motivated.”
- “Few Democrats were willing to admit the Klan’s political character and purpose.”
- “The Democratic press in Louisiana played its familiar role as Klan apologist.”
- “Democratic newspapers continued to ignore violence more than they condemned it.”
- The “only native whites who stood out in significant numbers against the Klan” were Republicans.
In 1871, a congressional committee exposed the Klan’s mass terror and called for federal intervention in the South. Congressional Democrats pushed back, issuing their own report which stated that:
- it is “folly and madness” to claim that “any country can prosper where the Anglo-Saxon is made politically subordinate to the African.”
- government cannot “long exist ‘half black and half white.’ ”
- the disguised men perpetrating violence in the South do not “have any general organization, or any political significance” and their conduct is not “indorsed by any respectable number” of white people.
‘Terrorist Arm of the Democratic Party’
In direct contrast to the claims of Democratic politicians and the media that the Klan had no “political significance,” Klansmen used violence and intimidation to serve the interests of the Democratic party.
For example, a black resident of Alabama named Robert Fullerlove testified before Congress (along with other Klan victims) that Klansmen interrogated black people about their political beliefs and promised to leave them alone if they “would come over to the democratic side.”
The Klan also made frequent death threats to Republican speakers and officials. One Republican state official testified that the “sheriff and clerk, to save their lives, have declared themselves democrats.”
One Democrat from South Carolina testified that members of the Democrat Party in Abbeville County:
- were organized into clubs which appointed secret “committees.”
- ordered these committees to seize and destroy Republican ballots by force prior to the election.
- prevented about four hundred blacks from voting Republican at the Greenwood polling precinct.
- generally understood that Republican speakers should be shot, killed, or stopped from speaking.
- were “nearly all” part of the Ku Klux Klan.
White Terror — which contains over 1,000 footnotes — summarizes the Democratic Party’s involvement with the Klan as follows:
- “The Klan became in effect a terrorist arm of the Democratic party, whether the party leaders as a whole liked it or not.”
- “Nearly all members” viewed the Klan “as a secret political society in behalf of the Democratic party.”
- The “Klan itself was universally regarded as a Democratic political device.”
- Some activities were “obviously and almost exclusively political,” and the Klan “systematically” terrorized “Republicans of both races.”
PolitiFact quotes one historian who stated that some Klans were a “strong arm” for local elected Democrats, and the AP’s choice historian reports that the Klan did not “have ideological motives until later.” Once again, these gentle nods to reality downplay the full extent of the Klan’s political activities.
Not the Party of Today
PolitiFact also uses an unsupported claim from a history professor to spread the common canard that racist southerners fled “into the Republican party” after the 1964 Civil Rights Act was passed. This claim is belied by the facts that:
- 80% of Republicans voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as compared to only 65% of Democrats, giving racist Democrats no reason to switch parties.
- 20 of the 21 Democrats who voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 remained in the Democratic Party for their entire congressional careers.
- the main demographic of southerners who supported segregation, namely whites who lived in poor areas with large black populations, continued to vote for Democrats at about the same rates.
- Republicans won 44% of Southern electoral votes in 1956, about the same as the 45% they won in 1968 after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
- the portion of white Southerners who said they would be willing to vote for a black president increased from 8% in 1958 to 95% in 1999.
The long-term shift of Southern voters to the Republican Party actually correlates with massive declines in racism, growing prosperity, Democratic opposition to gun rights, and Democratic support of abortion up to birth.
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PolitiFact emphasizes that “context matters” because the “anti-black Democratic Party” of yesterday is not the party of today. Yet, Senator Cruz is correct that modern Democrats are still sowing racial divisions for political gain, such as:
- politicizing the death of Trayvon Martin.
- politicizing the death of Michael Brown.
- politicizing the death of George Floyd.
- falsely claiming that black people suffer disproportionately from police brutality.
PolitiFact concludes its article by stating that “while some Democrats supported the KKK, there’s no evidence the group was founded by their political party,” and the AP briefly acknowledges that the Klan took on a “political tone.” These are gross understatements in light of the wide-ranging facts above, which are accurately summarized by Senator Cruz.
By fixating on the point that the Democratic Party did not create the club that first called itself the “Ku Klux Klan,” these so-called fact checkers distract readers from the facts that:
- influential Democrats established and expanded the “real” Klan.
- the Klan was “in effect a terrorist arm of the Democratic party” and used violence to stop people from voting Republican.
- Democrats and newspapers repeatedly downplayed and denied the existence and brutality of the Klan.
- modern Democrats continue to exploit interracial violence for political purposes.
Anna Agresti is a writer and researcher for Just Facts, a research and educational institute dedicated to publishing rigorously documented facts about public policy issues. James D. Agresti is the president of Just Facts.