During the period of reconstruction scores of protective secret organizations were formed by the white men of the South. These ranged “from small bodies of neighborhood police, which were common in 1865 and 1866, to great federated orders like the White Camelia, covering the entire South and even extending into the North and West. The largest and best known was the Ku Klux Klan, or the Invisible Empire.
The Ku Klux Klan was organized by some young men of Pulaski, Tennessee. Originally it seems to have been partly an expression of the gregarious instincts of youth. In addition, these young ex-Confederate soldiers… soon found that terrorizing the criminal element among the negroes, by means of mysterious costumes and nightly maneuvers, furnished both fun for themselves and protection to life, property and the home. It is impossible to determine what relative part these desires played in the original organization, but it is sure that in a very short time protection became the great object of these watchers of the night. Their success led to similar protective orders throughout the whole South, and they soon united under the name of “The Invisible Empire.”
It was indeed an invisible empire. Initiations were not mere useless horse-play, as in some societies of the present time, but were designed to test thoroughly the mettle of the initiate, and one who passed through them possessed bravery at least. The Ku Klux Klan at first performed much the services of the slave-patrol of ante-bellum days. Mr. Gardner, in “Reconstruction in Mississippi,” says, “The nocturnal perambulations of the freedmen, their habits of running away from labor contracts, the large amount of petit larceny among them at the time, the abandonment of crops to attend political meetings, their participation in the Loyal [Union] Leagues, and their alleged insolence to their former masters created a necessity for some kind of restraints, as the whites believed. The Ku Klux Klan organization (in Mississippi) was designed to accomplish this purpose.”
That the first operations of the Ku Klux Klan were a blessing seems to be admitted by most northern historians. The Radical leaders became more moderate, burnings, a weapon of the Loyal [Union] League, stopped, negroes were frightened into good behavior, women were protected, and civilized forms of society reappeared.
In many sections the activities of the Ku Klux Klan consisted only of innocent pranks to frighten the negroes into obedience, and such sections soon fell into the hands of the whites. In the black districts, however, with the coming of Carpetbag rule, and the consequent social disorders, more strenuous measures were adopted. When other methods failed, whipping and even the death penalty were resorted to as preventatives of arson and the ravishing of women. These punishments were decreed and carried out in a formal and dignified manner in conformity with the strict discipline of the Ku Klux Klan leaders.
The members of this order were thus self-constituted committees of safety, such as always appear sooner or later in a lawless, disorganized society. Like organizations served to restore order in many western mining towns during a rule of anarchy. This fact must be kept constantly in mind—in many sections of the South there was no other protection to life, property or virtue. The more serious penalties imposed by the order would never have been resorted to by the intelligent men of the South had the courts been open to them, or had even a semblance of justice and civilization been maintained. And the Ku Klux Klan was composed of the bravest and best men of the South, much as this has been denied by well-meaning northern apologists.
Anarchy reigned supreme, and the Ku Klux Klans merely resorted to the first law of nature, self-preservation. The ethics of social progress demand that, at such a time, the intelligent and safe elements of society band together to restore law and order. The means to be used must be commensurate with the disorders threatening, and the Ku Klux Klans stayed within the limitations of this rule.”
Source: Secret Political Societies in the South during the Period of Reconstruction, An Address given before the Faculty and Friends of Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio, by Walter Henry Cook given on Founders’ day, January 16, 1913