The History of the KKK And Law Enforcement On 'Behind The Police'

On this episode of Behind the Police, Robert Evans and Jason “Propaganda” Petty tell us about the historically close relationship between the police and the Ku Klux Klan. The period after slavery was abolished, between 1865-1877, was called “Reconstruction.” More than 700 Black men were elected to public office, including 14 Representatives and 2 Senators. 1,400 Black men and women were appointed to government jobs, and they fought for things like back wages for former slaves. “This was a pickle for white supremacists,” Robert says. In response, the Ku Klux Klan was formed. At first, this was basically a loosely-formed gang of drunk white men who would dress up as ghosts or aliens and terrify Black people with beatings, hangings, dismemberment, and other violence. The costumes were intended to make the victims appear ridiculous, afraid of something silly, that they “didn’t get the joke.” President Ulysses S. Grant and his Attorney General Amos Ackerman clamped down hard on the KKK, passing the Enforcement Acts, and by 1872, the KKK was no more.

But then, in 1877, Jim Crow laws were passed. These mandated different public spaces for white and Black people, requiring separate bathrooms, schools, restaurants, beaches, and everything else, and police could arrest a Black person simply for entering a white-only space. In 1915, the Ku Klux Klan started back up again under the aegis of a minister named William Joseph Simmons, who rebranded it as a fun family club that helped police with law and order. This new iteration of the Klan had millions of members all over the country at its height, and Simmons bragged in an interview that there were members of law enforcement at every level of the organization, “and that the Sheriff was often the first to join when the Klan came to a town.” In Anaheim, California, Klan members won four out of five city council seats and allowed cops to patrol the city in their Klan uniforms instead of their police uniforms. 

Remember, Robert says, that the first police department started in 1838, and Jim Crow laws in 1877. Law enforcement was founded in large part to keep Black people separate from whites. And the Klan didn’t limit themselves to Black people; they also terrorized Catholics, Jews, and Asian immigrants. Robert tells many stories to illustrate the violence of the KKK in several parts of the country, then gives an overview of the Red Summer of 1919, when white people went to Black communities instigating violence and destroying their homes and businesses, and law enforcement either stood by and watched or actively assisted the white mobs. Then he draws a direct line from that day to this, telling us about FBI reports showing that members of law enforcement all over the country have ties to extremist groups or had to be reprimanded for making racist comments. When it comes to the police upholding white supremacy, not much has changed. Listen to the episode for all this history and more on Behind the Police.

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