Historical Connections and Domestic Terrorism

Learning Objectives

  • Make historical connections by understanding domestic terrorism and how it was utilized by the KKK

A goal of historians is not to just study the past, but to connect the past to our present. For example, when we think “terrorism” it is often in a recent context, such as the Pulse nightclub shootings, the attack on the Jewish synagogue in Pittsburgh, or the Boston Marathon bombings. That is a very narrow view, however, since terrorism is as old as civilization. For instance, one can go back as far as the Roman Empire’s control of Judea during the time of Christ—the Sicarii was a fanatical splinter group of Jewish Zealots who would keep daggers under their robes, go into a crowd of people, and stab Romans and Roman sympathizers. Better understanding historical issues can shed light on contemporary issues as well.

Studying terrorism in the past helps us understand human behavior, which can lead to insights as to why and how things happened. This information can then influence how we deal with and respond to terrorism today. In this exercise, we will look at how domestic terrorism of today is connected to domestic terrorism tactics used by the Ku Klux Klan over 150 years ago.

Domestic Terrorism

Domestic terrorism is the committing of a terrorist act by a person or persons against citizens of their own country. In the United States, it is officially defined as “activities that involve acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State; AND appear to be intended to intimidate or coerce a civilian population, to influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion, or to affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping; AND occur primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States.”[1]

Usually, domestic terrorism is also defined by who is committing the act. A U.S. citizen or resident is considered a domestic terrorist (i.e., Ted Kaczynski or Timothy McVeigh), whereas a foreign national who comes to the U.S. to commit a terrorist act is not considered a domestic terrorist (i.e., the 9/11 attacks). Other nations also suffer from domestic terror attacks by groups such as the IRA in Ireland, the Ordine Nero in Italy, or the Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (Basque Homeland and Liberty) in Spain. One of the most important examples of a domestic terrorism group in the United States is the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) after the Civil War. Much like the Sicarii, the KKK would target not only the freedmen, but those who supported them as well.

Motives for Terror

Many times, terrorist acts are motivated by a desire to send a message to the government, to intimidate certain portions of the population into compliance with the group’s agenda, or to target people or organizations which are believed to be part of the systematic oppression of a group. Anarchists, radical nationalists, and political separatists often commit acts of domestic terrorism to send messages about certain government policies. Individual terrorists like Timothy McVeigh (Oklahoma City bombing, 1995) and the Tsarnaev brothers (Boston Marathon bombing, 2013) used terror to retaliate for perceived injustices (McVeigh was angry with the U.S. government for their handling of the Branch Davidian crisis in Waco, Texas; the surviving Tsarnaev brother stated that the bombing was justice for the U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan). Sometimes targets are chosen in order to stop or slow down a political process (the U.S. Capitol riots on January 6th, 2021), sometimes they are random and only intended to cause chaos, death, and fear (San Bernardino shooting, 2015). More frequently, particularly in the U.S., terrorists choose to target a specific group of people that they perceive to be a threat, such as the Tulsa Race Massacre in 1921 and the Charleston Church shooting in 2015 (both targeting Black communities), the Pulse Nightclub shooting in 2016 (targeting the LGBTQ+ community), and the El Paso Walmart shooting in 2019 (targeting the Hispanic community).

Watch It

Terrorism exists on two levels: domestic and international. Terrorism can be committed by foreigners, but more commonly, it is carried out by people born inside their own borders. From the Ku Klux Klan to mass shootings, domestic terrorism in the United States remains a threat. This video provides a brief view of the history of terrorist attacks carried out by U.S. citizens on their own soil against their own people.

Note that the video has no narration. You can view the descriptive transcript for “Understand The Violent History Of Domestic Terrorism In The United States” here (opens in new window).

Try It

Understanding Domestic Terrorism and the KKK

Evidence shows us that the Ku Klux Klan fit the profile of domestic terrorists because their violence was perpetrated with a political goal: to suppress the rights and the votes of Black Americans. The first wave of the KKK focused heavily on preventing Black voters from registering and reaching the polls, as demonstrated by the number of attacks against freedmen, which spiked just before elections. Read about the political power of the KKK in the following report out of Texas in 1868.


Read this primary source report from Brevet Major General J. J. Reynolds concerning the activities of the KKK in Texas (or find the full text here).

General: I have the honor to forward herewith annual tabular statement of expeditions and souts, and reports of movements of the various regiments serving in this district, for the year ending September 30, 1868. Armed organizations, generally known as “Ku-Klux Klans,” exist, independently or in concert with other armed bands, in many parts of Texas, but are most numerous, bold, and aggressive east of Trinity River.

The precise objects of the organizations cannot be readily explained, but seems, in this state, to be to disarm, rob, and in many cases murder Union men and negroes, and as occasion may offer, murder United States officers and soldiers; also to intimidate every one who knows anything of the organization but who will not join it.

The civil law east of the Trinity River is almost a dead letter. In some counties the civil officers are all, or a portion of them, members of the Klan. In other counties where the civil officers will not join the Klan, or some other armed band, they have been compelled to leave their counties. Examples are Van Zandt, Smith, and Marion counties; (the county seat of the latter is Jefferson.)

In many counties where the county officers have not been driven off their influence is scarcely felt. What political end, if any, is aimed at by these bands I cannot say, but they attend in large bodies the political meetings (barbecues) which have been and are still being held in various parts of this State under the auspices of the democratic clubs of the different counties.

The speakers encourage their attendance, and in several counties men have been indicated by name from the speaker’s stand, as those selected for murder. The men thus pointed out have no course left them but to leave their homes or be murdered on the first convenient opportunity.

The murder of negroes is so common as to render it impossible to keep an accurate account of them.

Many of the members of these bands of outlaws are transient persons in the State; the absence of railroads and telegraphs and great length of time required to communicate between remote points facilitating their devilish purposes.

These organizations are evidently countenanced, or at least not discouraged, by a majority of the White people in the counties where the bands are most numerous. They could not otherwise exist.

I have given this matter close attention, and am satisfied that a remedy to be effective must be gradually applied and continued with the firm support of the army until these outlaws are punished or dispersed.

They cannot be punished by the civil courts until some examples by military commissions show that men can be punished in Texas for murder and kindred crimes. Perpetrators of such crimes have not heretofore, except in very rare instances, been punished in this state at all.

Free speech and a free press, as the terms are generally understood in other States, have never existed in Texas. In fact, the citizens of other states cannot appreciate the state of affairs in Texas without actually experiencing it. The official reports of lawlessness and crime, so far from being exaggerated, do not tell the whole truth…[2]

Write a brief (4-5 sentences or bullet points) explanation of how the KKK fits the definition of a domestic terrorist organization, using specific details from the primary source document. This is an open-ended exercise, but you can use the space below to jot down your ideas.

  1. 18 U.S. Code § 233, https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/18/2331
  2. “Report of Brevet Major General J. J. Reynolds, Commanding Fifth Military District” in Annual Report of the Secretary of War (Washington: 1868), 704-705.