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IT started as something of a lark, just 100 years ago. On Dec. 24, 1865, in Pulaski, Tenn., six young ex-Confederate officers, looking for something to occupy their time, got together to form a club. Like college kids, they gave the club all the trappings of a fraternity—mysterious rites, initiations, secret words. For a name, they hit on the Greek word for circle, kyklos, gave it a few twists and came up with Ku Klux Klan. For kicks, they made robes and hoods out of bedsheets and pillowcases, and took to riding sheet-draped horses solemnly through the town at night. Soon they discovered that their frolics frightened superstitious Negroes, and that was reason enough for scores of others to join in the fun.

To fight Reconstruction, Klansmen decided to organize nationally. In Nashville, in 1867, they drew up a constitution, picked for their Imperial Wizard the Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest, and turned their talents to terrorism. Cloaked in their sheets and masks, they rode the countryside thirsting for violence. Anyone—white or black—who cooperated with Reconstruction was fair game for barbarism. White men who taught in Negro schools were lashed, and their schools were set afire and reduced to ashes. Negroes who refused to work for white men, or who seemed to flourish on their own, were thrashed with whips; some were hanged, some castrated, some burned to death, some murdered and quartered like animals.

For the most part, the Klan's outrages were applauded by Southerners who felt that the K.K.K. was the last best hope for the South's lily-white cause. But in 1869, Nathan Forrest himself ordered the Klan to disband. As University of Florida Professor David Chalmers writes in his book, Hooded Americanism, "A secret masked society, composed of autonomous units, dedicated to the use of force, operating in unsettled times, proved impossible to control. The better citizens were dropping out and the quality of membership in many of the states was declining."

"Practical Fraternity." The Klan mentality, however, never died; it merely lay quiescent, while apologists fed it intravenously with myths. Thomas Dixon Jr.'s 1905 book, The Clansman, idealized the K.K.K. as a righteous crusade led by noble men, and D. W. Griffith immortalized the book in 1914 with his film, The Birth of a Nation.

An itinerant Methodist preacher named William Joseph Simmons started up the Klan again in Atlanta in 1915. Simmons, an ascetic-looking man, was a fetishist on fraternal organizations. He was already a "colonel" in the Woodmen of the World, but he decided to build an organization all his own. He was an effective speaker, with an affinity for alliteration; he had preached on "Women, Weddings and Wives," "Red Heads, Dead Heads and No Heads," and the "Kinship of Kourtship and Kissing." On Thanksgiving Eve 1915, Simmons took 15 friends to the top of Stone Mountain, near Atlanta, built an altar on which he placed an American flag, a Bible and an unsheathed sword, set fire to a crude wooden cross, muttered a few incantations about a "practical fraternity among men," and declared himself Imperial Wizard of the Invisible Empire of the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.

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