why does the kkk burn crosses

why does the kkk burn crosses

Burning of Cross

The burning of a cross in America is a symbolic act associated with hate, prejudice, and many, many injustices. The burning cross emerged during a time when racial tension was at its highest and members of the Ku Klux Klan used this as a symbol for their hatred of African Americans. In the South there has always been a major racial divide that still exists until this day. During a time when African American were fighting for equality and to live in a society free of discrimination while the opposition, some Southern White Americans, and members of the white supremacy group, the Ku Klux Klan fought to keep African Americans as second class citizens.


Burning of the cross originated from Scotland when warriors would light a cross as a symbol of faith for their journey into the battle (Adams, 1993). The Scots also used the cross as a warning with marauders or enemies attempted to bring battle to their doorstep. The Klan began in 1866 in Tennessee as a group similar to the Knights Templar as a mysterious society who dealt out justice in the countryside as they saw fit. The name of the Ku Klux Klan was derived from the Greek word kyklos, meaning “circle,” and the Scottish-Gaelic word “clan,” which was probably chosen for the sake of alliteration (Adams, 1993)

Originally the American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan the group claims burning a cross is a ritual of the group based on an ancient ritual designed to create an unconquerable race of men. The Ku Klux Klan believes white men are this unconquerable race and should be the most powerful race on earth. Back when the Ku Klux Klan originated blood sacrifices were made to the fiery cross to ensure the white race would prevail. When the group originated in Pulaski, Tennessee as a secret society they wore masks to hide their identities.

The first burning of the cross occurred when William J. Simmons, the founder of the Klan in its second incarnation (1915-1944), cobbled together a cross and burned it at a meeting of the newly-established Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in 1915 (Adams, 1993). Flaming crosses have been a Klan trademark ever since but were not originally intended to intimidate but to instead honor the traditions of past Scottish clansmen. Overtime the use of the cross changed when people began to associate the burning cross with the Klan. The burning cross was then used to warn anyone who went against the Klan but especially against minorities after the Civil War.


The burning of the cross will always be a symbol of a terrible time in American history. White supremacy groups would burn crosses in front of the homes, church, and businesses of African American citizens who dared oppose their goal of white racial superiority. The KKK was determined to create fear through violence and burning crosses. African American citizens quickly began to understand the symbol of the cross. The burning cross in the front yard of an African American citizen’s home or business was designed to intimidate and force the African American citizen to vote the way to group wanted.

Cross burning began as a ritual of the Ku Klux Klan but ended up as a tool used for violence and intimidation. African American citizens with burning crosses in their front yards understood this was a warning from the white supremacist group and people that did not comply would mysteriously disappear or later be found hanging from a tree. The burning cross quickly became a symbol of hate and represented the ignorance of the people in the South before the social and political change that was ushered in with the Civil Rights Movement. While cross burning is a medieval practice, in the South it became a Racist practice perpetuated by Christian in the South.

Legal Ramifications of Cross Burning

Many states ban the burning of a cross, such as California, Florida, and Virginia. In Virginia the law against burning crosses was tested in the case of Virginia vs. Black. The case began when Barry Black, leader of the Ku Klux Klan, burned a cross in a county and Virginia and was charged and found guilty of cross burning. Black appealed finding the government should not have the authority to regulate a form of symbolic expression especially when the purpose of burning the cross was not to intimate but for a ritual for him and his fellow brothers in the Klan. (Gey, 2005).

Black claimed the flag burning law in Virginia was a violation of his constitutional right to free speech under the First Amendment. The First Amendment allows groups in society to freely express their beliefs without interruption by the government. Black claimed the flag burning law violated his ability to freely express his beliefs. In return the Supreme Court allowed for violations of free speech if the free speech is being used to intimidate, as a threat, or to incite violence. Since the burning of the cross symbolizes a past of violence, hate, and tragedy the court ruled it was not protected speech.

The final ruling of the court was crosses cannot be burned if the goal of the burning of the cross is to create fear, incite violence and for purposes of hate as well as create a true threat. Crosses can only be burned if they are being burned for a ritual. Despite this ruling the court determined Virginia’s cross burning law was in fact unconstitutional because juries are instructed to consider any types of cross burning to be illegal (Brannon, 2003). Under the First Amendment citizens have freedom of religion and the freedom to express these religious beliefs. When a burning of cross ritual is religious it is protected. Virginia’s law does not provide this protection.

As a result of the Supreme Courts ruling in Virginia vs. Black not all cross burning will be considered a form of coercion or threat due to a previous history of cross burning for spiritual purposes. The dissenting vote found that the majority vote was wrong and in fact the history of cross burning in Scotland does not affect American society and has never influenced cross burning for spiritual purposes. The only reason crosses have been burned in America is in order to intimidate minorities and strike fear of the potential repercussions they will face if they do not do as the white supremacy group wishes.

Burning of the cross is not a religious and it is not a positive part of American history. Free speech should never pertain to hate or embrace a history of hate as with the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacy groups. Cross burning should be illegal in all fifty states and result in hate crime charges when they are burned in order to intimidate or strike fear in the heart of an African American citizen. Throughout Southern American history Klan, cross burnings has been used as a tool to intimidate and threaten imminent violence against minorities and groups in society that do not embrace their beliefs or accept their racist behavior.


In the United States the burning of the cross has one significant meaning and that is off hate. Despite the recent ruling of the Supreme Court this behavior should never be conducted for any reason and should be a forbidden practice for all American citizens. If a cross is burned at the home or business of an African American citizen it is automatically assumed this is an act of intimidation because it is. There is no other reason to burn a cross than to send a message of hate or a warning to some group in society.



Adams, C. (1993). Why does the Ku Klux Klan burn crosses? Retrieved February 25, 2014 from


Brannon, C L. (2003). Note, Constitutional Law—Hate Speech—First Amendment Permits Ban

on Cross Burning When Done with the Intent to Intimidate, Miss. L. J. 73(1): 323.

Gey, S. (2005). A Few Questions About Cross Burning, Intimidation, and Free Speech, Notre

Dame L. Rev. 80: 1287.

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