I was surprised to learn that this KKK custom didn’t begin until the 1900s and it was the media that came up with the scenario, not the Klan itself.
The Ku Klux Klan claims to be Christian based. They call themselves a Klan like the close knit clans in medieval Scotland. The Klan felt that those were times when people were racially homogenous and morally pure.
The Scottish had a practice back then of burning crosses, called a Crann Tara, on hilltops to declare war and as a signal for all the clansmen to gather to defend their territory.
But the Ku Klux Klan didn’t burn crosses during its early years during the Reconstruction period following the civil war. In 1905 Thomas Dixon wrote a novel called The Clansmen. The work of fiction included an essential scene of a cross burning as a means to emphasize the supposed connection of the KKK to Scottish Clans. D W Griffith bought the rights to the book 10 years later and made it into a movie called The Birth of a Nation, portraying the scene as terrifying to the victims, but sympathetic to the clansmen.
Klansmen embraced the idea of burning crosses to intimidate targets like Catholics, minorities, and anyone else who didn’t meet their idealistic standards. The first KKK cross burning happened at Stone Mountain, Georgia on the eve of Thanksgiving in November, 1915. That one was symbolic of the Klan’s unity but many more episodes with more malevolent intentions would follow throughout the years and still occur today.
Klan members do not refer this action as cross burning. They call it cross lighting and say it is a symbol of their faith and belief. The flames supposedly symbolize the fiery light of Christ. They proclaim cross burning was never meant to desecrate a symbol of Christianity but rather to honor it.