Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Ku Klux Klan in Wisconsin

Ku Klux Klan in Wisconsin | Wisconsin Historical Society
Dictionary of Wisconsin History.

 

The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) first appeared in the United States in 1866. They first appeared in Wisconsin in the 1920s but had mostly disappeared by the end of the decade. New chapters formed after the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, and Wisconsin had at least three KKK chapters as late as 2004.

Origin

Founded by veterans of the Confederate Army, the KKK's main purpose was to resist Reconstruction through violent means. The Civil Rights Act of 1871 essentially destroyed the original KKK in the South.

The Resurrected KKK

In 1915, a second group using the same name was founded by William Joseph Simmons. The organization grew slowly until the end of World War I 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 during the 1920s but the best estimates are around 2 million members, some 15,000 of whom were in Wisconsin.

The Klan in Milwaukee

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. They saw Freemasons, long condemned by Rome, as a logical source of members. Many Milwaukee Socialists joined the Klan out of their contempt for Catholicism, despite Socialist leader Victor Berger's condemnations of the group.

The Klan in Madison

The Klan gained power in Madison by linking crime in the public imagination with immigrants, many of whom were Catholic. They promised to maintain order in the city's Italian neighborhood, the Greenbush. The University of Wisconsin also had a student group that called itself the Ku Klux Klan Honorary Junior Society.

In 1924, Wisconsin KKK leader Wieseman was replaced by Charles B. Lewis, who secured a state charter for the Wisconsin affiliate from the national organization. The charter indicated 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.

Resurgence After the Civil Rights Movement

In the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, however, the Klan took on new life nationwide, including Wisconsin. The Southern Poverty Law Center's "Intelligence Project" listed at least three Wisconsin chapters as late as 2004.

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

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