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Term: Ku Klux Klan in Wisconsin

Definition: The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) first appeared in the United States in 1866. Founded by veterans of the Confederate Army, its main purpose was to resist Reconstruction through violent means. The Civil Rights Act of 1871 essentially destroyed the KKK. In 1915, a second group using the same name was founded by William Joseph Simmons. The organization grew slowly until the end of WWI when Klan recruiters known as "kleagles" traveled around the country to sign up new members. Postwar fears of radicalism and disloyalty led Klan members to organize and declare themselves the defenders of Americanism. The Klan was openly hostile to Catholics, Jews, African Americans, immigrants, freethinkers, and radicals. No one knows for sure how many Americans joined but the best estimates are around 2 million members, some 15,000 of which were in Wisconsin.

The Klan first appeared in Wisconsin in 1920. Under the leadership of Milwaukee insurance broker William Wieseman, the Klan grew throughout Wisconsin, though Milwaukee continued to have the highest number of members. Because the Catholic church was the only group on the Klan's list of enemies that had any real power in Wisconsin, the Klan went to great lengths to identify itself with American Protestantism and saw Masons (long condemned by Rome) as a logical source of members. Many Milwaukee Socialists joined the Klan out of their contempt for Catholicism, despite Victor Berger's condemnations of the group. Linking crime with immigrants (many of whom were Catholic), the Klan gained power in Madison by promising to maintain order in the city's Italian neighborhood, the Greenbush. The University of Wisconsin had a student group that called itself the Ku Klux Klan Honorary Junior Society. In 1924, Wieseman was replaced by Charles B. Lewis who secured a state charter for the Wisconsin affiliate from the national organization, a sign of organizational vitality and recognition. Unlike Klans in other states, the Wisconsin KKK did not resort to violence, choosing instead secret and extralegal actions. The Klan was already in decline by 1926, however, and had all but disappeared from Wisconsin by 1928.

In the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, the Klan took on new life nationwide, including Wisconsin. New chapters were formed and demonstrations held throughout the country, and according to the Southern Poverty Law Center's "Intelligence Project," three Wisconsin chapters existed as late as 2004.

View pictures relating to the Ku Klux Klan at Wisconsin Historical Images.

View related articles at Wisconsin Magazine of History Archives.

[Source: The History of Wisconsin vol 5; Robert A. Goldberg "The Ku Klux Klan in Madison, 1922-1927," in Wisconsin Magazine of History 58 (Autumn, 1974)]
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