What was (and is) the Ku Klux Klan, and what do you think of Atticus' comment about it?
The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) was originally founded in 1866 as a means of southern opposition to Reconstruction. Though the federal government passed laws to defeat the KKK, the organization was successful in restoring Democratic rule in southern states. In the twentieth century, the KKK experienced a revival and used techniques such as burning crosses while wearing white sheets and hoods to intimidate African Americans trying to acquire the vote, as well as to harass Jews, Catholics, and union groups. The KKK also used bombs to try to scare African Americans and their allies from asking for their civil rights. The KKK is still in existence.
Jem asks Atticus if the men in the front yard were going after Atticus, and Jem says that the Ku Klux Klan harassed some Catholics in Maycomb. Atticus responds that there are no Catholic people in Maycomb. Atticus then says,
"Way back about nineteen-twenty there was a Klan, but it was a political organization more than anything. Besides, they couldn’t find anybody to scare. They paraded by Mr. Sam Levy’s house one night, but Sam just stood on his porch and told ’em things had come to a pretty pass, he’d sold ’em the very sheets on their backs. Sam made ’em so ashamed of themselves they went away."
The Levy family met all criteria for being Fine Folks: they did the best they could with the sense they had, and they had been living on the same plot of ground in Maycomb for five generations.
“The Ku Klux’s gone,” said Atticus. “It’ll never come back.”
What Atticus says is inaccurate. The Klan continued to operate in Alabama past the 1920s and was definitely in operation in the 1930s, when the novel takes place. In the incident Atticus describes, the KKK went after a Jewish person in town. Though this incident might have ended peacefully, the KKK was still in existence and tried to prevent people—including Jews, African Americans, Catholics, members of unions, and others—from exercising their rights.
The Ku Klux Klan is a white-supremacist organization founded shortly after the Civil War, known in the early days for disguising its members in white robes, conical hats and riding robed horses. (It is believed that the renowned Confederate cavalryman, General Nathan Bedford Forrest--of Forrest Gump fame--was the KKK's first Grand Imperial Wizard.) The KKK first flourished in the 1860s before disappearing by 1880. The group reemerged in the 1920s, and then strengthened once again after World War II. The early incarnations of the KKK specialized in terrorist activities--usually at night-- primarily against African Americans, that included beatings, torture and murder--often by lynching. The KKK is still alive today, with more than 150 chapters nationwide and more than 5000 members.
The KKK comes into play during TKAM when Atticus is reminded by Jem about some previous Klan activity in Maycomb. Atticus corrects Jem, saying that the Klan's target many years before were not Catholics, but a (presumably) Jewish family named Levy. However, Atticus tells Jem that
"The Ku Klux's gone... It'll never come back."
Atticus may have been partially correct in this assessment, since the KKK apparently was silent for nearly two decades before the end of the Second World War. But it certainly proved that Atticus was not infallible, since the Klan would soon rise once again. It is also likely that Atticus made this statement in order to soothe his worried family after receiving the news that there may be trouble at the jail later that night.