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 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 Forest 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.