How the failure of reconstruction in the 19th century led to the rise of the KKK in the early 20th century

By João Cunha

Image result for the auxiliary government kkk cartoon

The Ku Klux Klan was a political force in the 1900’s as this cartoon proved. As the cartoon was titled “auxiliary government” which referred to how the Klan and the local government were intertwined. This advancement of white supremacy wouldn’t have been possible without the failure of reconstruction in the 19th century. As Wilbur Miller  noted, “Reconstruction succumbed to traditional American racism, localism” (Miller, 10) The idea of “redeeming the south” became something of an obsession by white Southerners after the CIvil War, as a way of maintaining their supremacy. However they cleverly used state’s rights with their racial ideology to gain sympathizers throughout the country in the 1800’s and even in the 1900’s. As James Moore explained, “The sources of their initial popularity are readily apparent…they had expelled hated carpetbag governments from the South, and reestablished white supremacy on the wreckage of a defunct Radicalism” (Moore, 357). Southerners by linking big government and tyrannical overreach with white supremacy were able to gain popularity even among historians decades later. As Moore pointed out, scholars filled the redeemers with “eulogies” for the first “four or five decades after reconstruction” (Moore, 357). So with this tacit support from Northerners, and middle and upper class whites, the South post-1877 began to roll back a lot of the post-Civil War laws.

That’s why this political cartoon is important as it explains the relation between the local government and how it is run in Southern states by this racial structure. The cartoon itself seems to be a critique of this white supremacy, as there is a skull and crossbones on the upper right and left sides of the picture. In addition the supreme wizard is holding a mace, and another weapon in either hand, depicting the KKK as a violent menacing organization. The other members aren’t even depicted as people but rather as monsters such as a goblin, cyclops, etc. The setting seems to be ominous with all these figures, weapons, and images which implies that the person who drew this cartoon is a critic of the KKK’s power in his state of Kentucky as it was originally printed in Louisville. This rise of government support of the KKK was quite common by the 1920’s, as this was the era where the KKK had the most political power.

As the launch of The Birth of a Nation proved, the idea of Southern redemption had made it into pop-culture. As even Woodrow WIlson the president of the United States at the time watched the movie and praised it afterwards. In fact he was even quoted in the actual film!


This quote actually appeared in the movie The Birth of a Nation. Wilson describing the KKK as the “veritable empire of the south” proves how ingrained the idea of Southern pride was to racial superiority. Even the president couldn’t separate the two as he mentioned the white men’s “self-preservation” as why the KKK had come into existence.

This cartoon not only depicts what is going on at a local level but it is also takes shots at the national government as well, as they didn’t try to stop this in that era. The cartoon was a warning that the government of Kentucky was no longer ruled by noble men, but by racists and abhorrent people. This sign of skull and crossbones isn’t just a symbol of a warning but of a death as well. The potential death of a democracy unless these racists were forced out of government. In this sense this cartoon was a call for the reign of white supremacy to end and to denounce the KKK as well.

Works Cited

Wilbur R. Miller, Revenuers and Moonshiners: Enforcing Federal Liquor Law in the Mountain South, 1865-1900, 1991.
James Tice Moore, Redeemers Reconsidered: Change and Continuity in the Democratic South, 1870-1900, The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 44o. 3, 1978, pp. 357-378

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