Wednesday night, Discovery Channel will air a one-hour special, "KKK: Beneath the Hood," that delves into the truths and secrets behind one of the largest surviving white-supremacist organizations, the Ku Klux Klan. This exclusive clip from the docu-special reveals that the organization, which was formed on Christmas Eve of 1865 (the same year the American Civil War ended), began in an unexpected way: as a sophomoric gag. In his first televised interview, Richard Bondira, a Traditionalist American Knights member, talks about the Klan's surprising origins.
According to Bondira, the group began "innocently enough in a law office in Pulaski, Tennessee." Six Confederate Civil War veterans were deciding how to occupy their time now that the war was over, Bondira continued, and they agreed that forming a mysterious organization similar to college fraternities -- in which they could engage in pranks and hazing -- would be fun.
It was during this time that the name Ku Klux Klan was conceived. At first, the name was not intended to be menacing, Bondira said; "Ku Klux" was a variation of the Greek word "kýklos," which means wheel or band.
It wasn't long, though, before the organization turned violent and terroristic. In 1869, the first era of the Klan disbanded under pressure from the federal government, but factions of the KKK continue to exist to this day. Discovery was able to gain access via acclaimed photojournalist Anthony Karen, who has long documented the secret world of the Klan (as well as White Nationalists, the Westboro Baptist Church, the Maricopa County Jail, and more).
In this additional clip from tonight's docu-special, more little-known aspects of Klan members' existence are revealed -- specifically that there was an entire pop-culture movement (movies and music included) exclusive to the Klan. Bondira shares his collection of KKK artifacts -- something he's never done with non-Klan members. He calls these pop-culture relics "the great lost mystery" and reads off some titles from the Klan's albums: "The Klansmen and the Rain," "We Belong to the Ku Klux Klan," and "The Gathering Klan." At the time, these albums were widely available at record and department stores, Bondira says.
In 1915, the second iteration of the KKK had emerged. According to the documentary, this second era of the Klan, which was relatively mainstream at this point, grew to tremendous numbers (approximately 4 million by 1925), and was not necessarily stronger in the South than the North.
The popularity of the organization at that time resulted in some high-profile members. It is speculated that Harry Truman, 33rd president of the United States, was a member from 1920 to 1922, but his family -- to this day -- denies his membership. On the other hand, Warren G. Harding, the 29th president, was actually sworn in as a Klansman in the White House.
No topic is taboo in this Discovery special event, from cross-burning ceremonies to in-depth interviews with Klansmen of all ranks. Filmmakers even go inside the home of a Klan family.
"KKK: Beneath the Hood" airs Wednesday, 3/20 at 8 PM on Discovery.