Emergence of the UKA
The Ku Klux Klan and Resistance to School Desegregation
On May 17, 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its historic decision on
school desegregation -- Brown v. Board of Education. The decision triggered a wave of resistance to school desegregation
throughout the South that ultimately led to a resurgence of the Ku Klux
Klan.In its initial stages, the resistance was headed by
the "White Citizens Councils:" The Councils were largely
composed of respectable citizens in local power structures throughout the
South. Their main weapon was economic pressure directed against local
individuals and organizations perceived as supporters of desegregation or
insufficiently vocal in opposing it.
Councils achieved considerable power and influence in the second half of
the 1950s, generating an array of publications and spawning affiliated
organizations that lasted well into the 1960s. But by the end of the
decade their resistance to court ordered desegregation had become a
the efforts of the Councils were new Klan leaders with new campaigns. The
Klan had no use for the Councils' less militant methods, and sought to
mobilize like-minded believers into a resurgent Ku Klux Klan.
mid-1956, a marked rise in Klan activity was well underway – new Klan
groups were drawing strength from the ferment in the South. They gained
members from extremist elements among the White Citizens Councils
themselves. These organizing efforts succeeded in mobilizing former
Klansmen who had been inactive for years.
strongest of the new groups consisted of klaverns linked under the banner
of the U.S. Klans, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, Inc. (generally referred
to as the "U.S. Klans"). This group was subsequently chartered
and incorporated in the State of Georgia. The leader of the new group was
Eldon Lee Edwards, a paint sprayer employed in an Atlanta auto
factory. He had quietly begun organizing in 1953, had stepped up his
activities in the wake of the 1954 Supreme Court decision, and had
incorporated his new organization on October 24, 1955.
September 29, 1956, Edwards was able to stage one of the largest Klan
rallies in years, drawing a crowd of approximately 3,000 to Stone
Mountain, Georgia, the site from which the Second Klan had been launched
in 1915. The crowd came in more than 1,000 cars painted with KKK emblems
and bearing license plates from seven states – Georgia, Alabama, South
Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, Florida, and Louisiana.
its peak in the late 1950s, Edwards' U.S. Klans had units in nine Southern
states. However, the group was beset by internal feuding and challenges to
the Edwards leadership. In addition, more than a score of smaller Klans
emerged to compete with the Edwards organization.
the U.S. Klans remained the strongest of the Klan groups in the South
during the second half of the 1950s, Edwards was never able to gain a
dominant position, nor to unify the competing and fragmented Klan
The New Klan Resurgence and Violence
the early 1960s, the Klans functioned as a clandestine movement that
spearheaded the resistance to a national trend toward equality for all
Americans. Like their predecessors, the `60s Klans employed terrorism and
a form of guerrilla race warfare to carry out their purposes. The Klans
and their allies were responsible for a major portion of the assaults,
killings, bombings, floggings, and other acts of racial intimidation that
swept the South in the first years of the 1960s. The Klans provided the
organizational framework and the emotional stimulus necessary to incite
members and nonmembers alike to violence and terror.
year 1960 was marked by a sharp increase in Klan activities and by the
consolidation of some of the previously splintered groups in seven states.
The Klan resurgence was spurred by the historic sit-in movement launched
at Greensboro, North Carolina on February 2, 1960, by young Black civil
rights activists. A few weeks later, on the weekend of February
27-28, 1960, representatives of splintered Klan groups from seven
Southern states met at the Henry Grady Hotel in Atlanta and formed a
"National Klan Committee" to coordinate their activities. The
Klans represented there had long been opposed to Edwards' U.S. Klans; in
fact, this opposition was the chief bond among them. The loose
confederation of splinter Klans that emerged came to be known as the
"National Knights of the Ku Klux Klan."
The National Knights made a show of strength on March 26, 1960, by a
coordinated series of cross burnings. Newspapers in the South reported
that more than 1,000 fiery crosses were seen that day throughout Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South
Carolina, and other states.
Klan Strength Increases in the 1960s
By the end of 1960, Klan strength had increased noticeably. Total Klan
membership was estimated at anywhere from 35,000 to 50,000. Edwards' U.S.
Klans, dominant for the previous six years, remained the strongest and
most cohesive of the increasingly consolidated Klan movements, with an
estimated 15,000 to 23,000 members.
loose confederation of splinter Klans used the banner of the National
Knights, under which each unit retained its autonomy. The central
leadership operated on a rotating basis heading an estimated membership
somewhat less than that of the U.S. Klans – possibly 10,000 to 15,000.
were also a number of local groups in various parts of the South that were
not affiliated with either the U.S. Klans or the National Knights. Most
important of these was the Alabama Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, Inc.,
headed by Robert Shelton, who had been a leader of the Edwards Klan in
Alabama until he was ousted by Edwards in the spring of 1960. By the end
of 1960, Shelton had made rapid progress in absorbing local Klan klaverns,
including many formerly affiliated with the U.S. Klans, and consolidating
them into the Alabama Knights. The gains made by Shelton were further
hastened by Edwards' death in August, 1960. Edwards was succeeded as
Imperial Wizard of the U.S. Klans by Georgia Grand Dragon Robert L.
"Wild Bill" Davidson, who declared at a Klan rally in November,
1960, that Klansmen would use buckshot if necessary to fight integration.
however, was unable to control the internal feuding and battling that had
followed Edwards' death. He and his successor as Georgia Grand Dragon,
Calvin F Craig, resigned from the U.S. Klans and almost immediately formed
a new Klan organization chartered by the Superior Court of Fulton County,
Georgia, under the name of the "Invisible Empire, United Klans,
Knights of the Ku Klux Klan of America, Inc." The new group came to
be known as the United Klans of America, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, Inc.
Robert Shelton Becomes a Dominant Figure in the Klan
Membership in the new UKA was immediately bolstered by a mass defection from the U.S.
Klans within the state of Georgia. Whole klaverns around the state simply
changed their designation from U.S. Klans to UKA. Davidson quit as
Imperial Wizard in the spring of 1961; a few months later, at a meeting in
Indian Springs, Georgia, on July 8, 1961, the UKA united with Shelton's
Alabama Knights. Shelton emerged as the new Imperial Wizard of the UKA,
with Calvin Craig as UKA Grand Dragon for Georgia.
From that point on, Shelton’s UKA became the dominant group in the KKK
resurgence of the 1960s. With headquarters in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, it had
members and supporters in nine states by the middle of 1965. Estimates at
the time indicated that the UKA could probably count on active membership
and sympathetic support from 26,000 to 33,000 throughout the South. That
support included Klans directly affiliated with the UKA and some
semiautonomous groupings in Alabama, Georgia, the Carolinas, Tennessee,
Florida, Louisiana, Texas, and Virginia.
Next: Decline of the United Klans of America