The Ku Klux Klan, a white supremacy group, has been described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as the most infamous — and oldest — of American hate groups.
The group’s heyday may be over, but controversy over Confederate monuments has brought the group back into the spotlight.
The debate over Confederate symbols and monuments was reignited in June 2015, after Dylann Roof killed nine African-Americans in a Charleston, S.C., church in an attempt to "start a race war." There are numerous photos on the Internet showing Roof’s car with an ornamental Confederate license plate and Roof holding the Confederate flag.
One month after the shooting, the Confederate flag was removed from the South Carolina Statehouse grounds and the issue receded.
It escalated again Aug. 12, 2017, when a group of about 50 Ku Klux Klan members and other white nationalists rallied to protest the planned removal of a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from a public park in Charlottesville, Va. The white nationalists were met by a crowd of about 1,000 counter-protesters. After the rally dispersed, a car plowed into a group near the city’s downtown mall, killing a 32-year-old woman.
Two weeks later, on Aug. 26, 2017, a Baltimore man identified as a Klan imperial wizard was arrested and charged with firing a gun during the rally.
It was in this atmosphere that Madison Mayor Paul Soglin announced the removal of two Confederate memorials from the city’s Forest Hill Cemetery. A total of 140 Confederate soldiers -- prisoners of war who died at Camp Randall -- are buried in the cemetery.
After the announcement, a ground-level "Confederate Rest" plaque installed in 1981 was removed. The fate of a larger, 4-foot tall monument installed in 1931 has been referred to the Common Council, while the debate over what to do with it continues.
Soglin’s initial order prompted a news release from the Republican Party of Dane County, in which Chairman Scott Grabins scolded Soglin for an "antiseptic wipe to the memory of American voters."
The Aug. 25, 2017 release went on to cite various historical instances where Democrats opposed civil rights initiatives, ending the list with this assertion: "The KKK was founded as the military arm of the Democratic Party."
When asked to back up the party’s claim, Grabins said the history of the Klan is well-known and cited the History.com website’s entry on the KKK.
Let’s go to the history books.
According to a History.com entry on the Klan:
Founded in 1866, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) extended into almost every southern state by 1870 and became a vehicle for white southern resistance to the Republican Party’s Reconstruction-era policies aimed at establishing political and economic equality for blacks. Its members waged an underground campaign of intimidation and violence directed at white and black Republican leaders.
Though Congress passed legislation designed to curb Klan terrorism, the organization saw its primary goal – the reestablishment of white supremacy – fulfilled through Democratic victories in state legislatures across the South in the 1870s.
Historians weigh in
James Marten, an author and chairman of the history department at Marquette University, disputed the Dane County GOP claim the Klan was "founded" as the military arm of the Democratic party.
"It was at its simplest a secret fraternal organization, but it very quickly became an organization dedicated to preserving white supremacy and intimidating African Americans," he said. "They and other groups like them broke up schools, torched houses, and interfered with black social and church gatherings.
"And, along with those other groups as well as individuals and gangs, committed thousands of acts of terror, violence, and murder throughout the South. However, the early Klan — the founding generation of the Klan — really only lasted into the 1870s before it was driven underground, and it was not an overtly political organization."
Eric Foner, a Columbia University history professor, noted the Klan was a "military force."
"In effect, the Klan was a military force serving the interests of the Democratic party, the planter class, and all those who desired restoration of white supremacy," he said. "Its purposes were political, but political in the broadest sense, for it sought to affect power relations, both public and private, throughout Southern society."
But serving the interests of the party is not the same as being part of the party. Consider the political landscape today, where super PACs and other entities work outside the formal party structure.
In a June 10, 2013, PolitiFact Virginia article, Carole Emberton, associate professor of history at the University at Buffalo, noted that the "party lines of the 1860s/1870s are not the party lines of today."
"Although the names stayed the same, the platforms of the two parties reversed each other in the mid-20th century, due in large part to white ‘Dixiecrats’ flight out of the Democratic Party and into the Republican Party after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964," she said. "By then, the Democratic Party had become the party of ‘reform,’ supporting a variety of ‘liberal’ causes, including civil rights, women’s rights, etc. whereas this had been the banner of the Republican Party in the nineteenth century."
The Republican Party of Dane County claimed "the KKK was founded as the military arm of the Democratic Party."
There is little doubt that the political interests of the Klan and the Democratic Party, at least in the early years, intersected. But there is no evidence that it was founded as part of the Democratic Party, or that the party ever even had an official "military arm."
If a Democrat today claimed the KKK is the military arm of the Republican Party, we’d have a similar point of view.
We rate the claim False.