Forrest halted abuses, disbanded Ku Klux Klan

Greg Tucker, Daily News Journal, July 26, 2015

Rutherford County Historian Greg Tucker

Rutherford County Historian Greg Tucker

“The natural tendency of all such organizations is to violence and crime, hence it was that Gen. Forrest and other men of influence by the exercise of their moral power, induced them to disband.” (See U.S. Congressional Committee Report “Ku Klux Klan,” June 27, 1871.)  In the decade following the Civil War in Tennessee, former Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest was a popular public figure among both blacks and whites.  This is confirmed by readily accessible primary sources relied upon by historians.  (See Tucker, “Forrest was postwar activist for black civil rights,” Murfreesboro Daily News Journal, July 12, 2015.)  This popularity was perceived as a potential political and social threat by the leaders of the Radical Right, the self-named political faction that controlled Tennessee and most of the former Confederate states during Reconstruction.

After the surrender, these interests opposed the conciliatory policies favored by Abraham Lincoln and his successor, Andrew Johnson.  With little restraint, the Radical Right politicians and their allies imposed harsh and oppressive conditions on the devastated South.

Beginning before the 1870s and continuing even beyond Forrest’s death in 1877, the Radical Right promulgated and spread false claims and rumors about Forrest in an effort to diminish his popularity, particularly among the newly enfranchised black voters.  For example, it was alleged that Forrest founded the Ku Klos society (later known as the 19th-century Ku Klux Klan).

Notwithstanding this oft-repeated falsehood, the original fraternal organization was founded shortly after the war’s end in Pulaski by six Confederate veterans meeting in the office of Giles County Judge Thomas M. Jones: James Richard Crowe, John Kennedy, Calvin Jones, Richard R. Reed, Frank O. McCord and John C. Lester. (J. L. Pearcy and James McCallum came into the group at the second or third meeting but are not generally treated as “founders.”)  All were natives of Pulaski who had returned home after the surrender.

Like most of the surviving Confederate soldiers, Forrest followed the advice he gave to his men at the surrender and returned to his home in Memphis where he resumed farming and headed a railroad venture.  There is no record of his ever being in Pulaski.

Forrest’s first involvement with the Ku Klos fraternity appears to have been in 1867 when a group meeting in Nashville “elected” Forrest to be their leader (“Grand Wizard”).

Research by Michael Bradley, professor emeritus, Motlow State Community College, indicates that Forrest was not in Nashville when the meeting occurred, and there is no record of Forrest’s participation in any Ku Klos activity prior to March 1869.  (Forrest did comment on the supposed size of the Klan during an interview by a Northern newspaper reporter in 1868.  His comments evidenced a lack of accurate information.)  Acting in his official Ku Klos capacity in 1869, Forrest issued his first and only order. This is generally referred to in Klan histories as the “order to disband.”  Thanks to Ku Klos founder John C. Lester, the text of that order has been preserved.

Lester served as a captain in the Third Tennessee Infantry.  In 1865-66 he was a practicing attorney in Pulaski and an official in the Methodist Church.

In 1884, while serving in the Tennessee legislature, Lester and a co-author wrote and published “Ku Klux Klan: Its Origin, Growth and Disbandment.”  The pamphlet, privately printed in Nashville, identified and referenced several original documents including the first and second “Prescript” and Forrest’s order.  (One tenet of the original Ku Klos organization was to destroy all communications. Lester, apparently a conscientious lawyer, retained his file.)  The first page of Forrest’s order reads as follows: “GENERAL ORDER NO. 1 “WHEREAS, The Order of the K. K. K. is in some localities being perverted from its original honorable and patriotic purpose; “AND, WHEREAS, Such a perversion of the order is in some instances defeating the very objects of its origin, and is becoming injurious instead of subservient to the public peace and public safety for which it was intended, and in some cases is being used for personal benefit and private purposes, and to satiate private revenge by means of its masked features; “AND, WHEREAS, Public sentiment is against a masked organization in the country; “AND, WHEREAS, Their masked features offer an opportunity to bad men outside the order to depredate and outrage the people in our name; “AND, WHEREAS, A few disobedient and bad men have gotten into the order through imprudence and otherwise, and whose conduct under mask is a disgrace to the good name and honorable reputation of the order: “It is therefore ORDERED AND DECREED that the masks and costumes of this order be entirely abolished and destroyed. And every (den leader) shall assemble the men of his den and require them to destroy in his presence every article of mask and costume and at the same time shall destroy his own…”

The order goes on to enumerate prohibited activities including “all demonstrations.” Forrest apparently recognized that anonymity fostered abuse and that the activity had gone beyond the original fraternal and social intent.

The lack of any political purpose or motive is evident in the first Ku Klos Prescript (a club charter or by-laws). A later revision, however, is quite specific about efforts to counter the perceived oppression and abuses of Reconstruction.

This second Prescript was issued in 1868, and was a likely factor in the decision to disband by order in March 1869.

As noted by founder Lester in the final chapter of his pamphlet: “The Ku Klux Klan had no formal existence after March 1869.”

Some abuses continued, however. Just shortly before his death in 1877, Forrest met with local leaders in Alabama and again stated that activity in the name of the K. K. K. should cease and confirmed that the organization had been disbanded “forever.” By the mid-1880s, the original Klan had disappeared.

An unrelated organization was formed in 1914 in Stone Mountain, Georgia by the Rev. William J. Simmons. He named it the 20th Century KKK. A labor-oriented, political organization, it was primarily anti- immigrant, anti-Semitic and anti-Catholic.

The formation was apparently prompted by the influx of European/ Mediterranean immigrants in the early years of World War I. The organization achieved notable political success, particularly in Indiana and several Midwestern states, during the 1920s.

In Rutherford County the organization demonstrated against establishment of a local Catholic congregation and conducted patriotic ceremonies for those who had earned U.S. citizenship. The 20th Century KKK faded during the Depression and was formally dissolved in the early 1940s.

As the civil rights movement gained momentum in the late 1940s, various hate groups emerged using names such as “Knights of the Ku Klux Klans in America.” These “Klans” took the Confederate battle flag as their banner and engaged in violent criminal activity targeting minorities and the civil rights movement.

There is no historical or other connection between the fraternal Ku Klos of the Reconstruction period and the two so-called “Klans” of the 20th century.

Comments are closed.