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Fact check: Democratic Party did not found the KKK, did not start the Civil War

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 2 days ago Devon Link, USA TODAY
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The claim: The Democratic Party started the Civil War to preserve slavery and later the KKK

a statue of Abraham Lincoln with Lincoln Memorial in the background: Lincoln Memorial in April 2015 in Washington, DC. © Mandel Ngan/Getty Images Lincoln Memorial in April 2015 in Washington, DC.

As America marks a month of protests against systemic racism and many people draw comparisons between current events and the Civil Rights Movement, an oversimplified trope about the Democratic Party’s racist past has been resurrected online.

“Friendly reminder that if you support the Democrat Party, you support the party that founded the KKK and start a civil war to keep their slaves," claims an image of a tweet Instagram user @snowflake.tears shared June 19.

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Many Instagram users read between the lines for the tweet’s implication about the modern Democratic and Republican parties. Some argued this past action discredited current liberal policies, while others said it did not matter.

“Everyone knows that Abraham Lincoln fought to free the slaves, but he also created the Republican Party, and was the leader of it to help fight to free the slaves, yet it’s said that most black people still vote for Democrats who fought to keep the slaves,” user @shrukenshmuck commented.

“I’m a conservative but I find this argument pretty stupid because clearly that’s not what they support anymore, values change overtime,” user @james.dubee wrote.

Historians agree that although factions of the Democratic Party did majorly contribute to the Civil War's start and the KKK's founding, it is inaccurate to say the party is responsible for either.

Instagram user @snowflake.tears has not returned USA TODAY’s request for comment.

This is not a new argument

Princeton University Edwards Professor of American History Tera Hunter told USA TODAY that this trope is a fallback argument used to discredit current Democratic Party policies.

“At the core of the effort to discredit the current Democratic Party is the refusal to accept the realignment of the party structure in the mid-20th century,” Hunt said.

In September, NPR host Shereen Marisol Maraji called the claim, “one of the most well-worn clapbacks in modern American politics.”

Comedian Trevor Noah tackled the misleading trope on an episode of "The Daily Show" in March 2016, after two CNN contributors debated the topic.

“Every time I go onto Facebook I see these things: ‘Did you know the Democrats are the real racist party and did you know the Republicans freed the slaves?’” Noah joked. “A lot of people like to skip over the fact that when it comes to race relations, historically, Republicans and Democrats switched positions.”

A similar meme attributing the claim to U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson has been circulating on social media since November 2016.

“Who started the KKK? That was Democrats. Who was the party of slavery? Who was the part of Jim Crow and segregation? Who opposed the Civil Rights Movement? Who opposed voting rights? It was all the Democrats,” the meme reads.

Other posts making more specific claims about the Democratic Party starting the Civil War or founding the KKK continue to circulate.

This trope was rated false by PolitiFact and the Associated Press in October 2018.

A faction of the Democratic Party started the Civil War

Opponents of slavery extending further into America founded the Republican Party. They elected President Abraham Lincoln in 1860, in response to escalating tensions around slavery after the Kansas-Nebraska Bill of 1854 threatened the balance of slave states to free states.

Southern states, primarily led by Democrats, initiated secession proceedings and launched the Civil War. But historians say the party is not to blame.

“The short answer is that the Democratic Party did not start the Civil War,” Hunter said. “The war was initiated by Southern slaveholding states seceding from the United States.”

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Jon Grinspan , the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History curator of political and military history, agreed.

“A splinter of a splinter of a Democratic Party really contributed to the secession and the coming of the war,” he told USA TODAY. “It would be wrong to say the Democratic Party started the Civil War. It would be right to say some Democrats really contributed to the start of the Civil War.”

Grinspan pointed to the small group of Northern Democrats that fought for the Union as evidence that the Civil War was not Democrats versus Republicans.

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The KKK was founded by Democrats, but not the party

The Ku Klux Klan was founded in 1866 by ex-Confederate soldiers Frank McCord, Richard Reed, John Lester, John Kennedy, J. Calvin Jones and James Crowe in Pulaski, Tennessee. The group was originally a “social club” but quickly became a violent white supremacist group.

Its first grand wizard was Nathan Bedford Forrest, an ex-Confederate general and prominent slave trader.

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Experts agree the KKK attracted many ex-Confederate soldiers and Southerners who opposed Reconstruction, most of whom were Democrats. Forrest even spoke at the 1868 Democratic National Convention.

“The KKK is almost a paramilitary organization that’s trying to benefit one party. It syncs up with the Democratic Party, which really was a racist party openly at the time,” Grinspan said. “But the KKK isn’t the Democratic Party, and the Democratic Party isn’t the KKK.”

Although the KKK did serve the Democratic Party’s interests, Grinspan stressed that not all Democrats supported the KKK.

The Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism senior fellow Mark Pitcavage told the Associated Press that many KKK members were Democrats because the Whig Party had died off and Southerners disliked Republicans after the Civil War. Despite KKK members' primary political affiliation, Pitcavage said it is wrong to say the Democratic Party started the KKK.

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A reconstituted, early 20th century KKK attracts members from both sides

After Reconstruction, and as the Jim Crow period set in during the 1870s, the Klan became obsolete. Through violence, intimidation and systematic oppression, the KKK had served its purpose to help whites retake Southern governments.

In 1915, Cornell William J. Simmons restarted the KKK. This second KKK was made up of Republicans and Democrats, although Democrats were more widely involved.

“The idea that these things overlap in a Venn diagram, the way they did with the first Klan, just isn’t as tight with the second Klan,” Grinspan said.

Political parties switch stance on racial progress

According to Grinspan, the Republican Party was much more concerned with protecting African Americans and their voting rights from its founding through the early 20th century. In the mid-20th century, both parties' stances on racial equity began to switch.

“It starts with FDR and the New Deal, but the actions with Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1960s with the Voting Rights Act and civil rights legislation really kind of seals the deal,” Grinspan said.

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As the Democrats introduced policies to support voting rights, it became the favored party for most Black voters and has remained so since. With that realignment, many racist voters who opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 left the Democratic Party to become Republicans.

“That was 150 years ago and the parties are totally different today,” Grinspan said. “It’s like a dinosaur to a modern-day bird. So much evolution has happened. These really aren’t the same groups anymore.”

Noah has mocked the political trope of highlighting the Democratic Party’s racist past to question its current progressive policies.

“That was true in like 1910, but then after World War II Democratic presidents like Truman and Johnson started supporting civil rights laws and that led to a mass exodus of racists from the Democratic Party,” Noah mocked the claim in 2016: “Just because something used to be something doesn’t mean it still is. What matters more is what it is now.”

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Our rating: False

We rate the claim that the Democratic Party started the Civil War to preserve slavery and founded the KKK as FALSE because it is not supported by our research. Experts agree that although factions of the Democratic Party were responsible for the South's secession and the rise of the KKK, it is inaccurate to claim the party is responsible for either. The Democratic Party was undoubtedly the party of racism and white supremacy during and after the Civil War. However, it evolved throughout the late 20th century, and garnered the support of most Black voters.

Our fact check sources:

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Our fact check work is supported in part by a grant from Facebook.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: Democratic Party did not found the KKK, did not start the Civil War


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