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Tuesday
Aug222017

U.S. Destroyed KKK Once and Could Do it Again

By Allyson Hobbs, associate professor of history and director of African and African American Studies at Stanford University via the Guardian

In 1870 and 1871, Congress passed three Enforcement Acts that safeguarded the rights of African Americans to vote, hold office, serve on juries and receive equal protection under the law. These acts, also known as the “Ku Klux Klan Acts,” targeted the Klan for acting murderously to prevent African Americans from exercising their rights as citizens.

Today 146 years later, we could use the Enforcement Acts once more. 

President Ulysses S Grant pushed the legislation through Congress and called on the Army to help federal officials “arrest and break up bands of disguised night marauders”. Grant’s attorney general, Amos Akerman, a 49-year-old graduate of Dartmouth College and an outspoken champion of black suffrage, relished the opportunity to fight white terrorists in southern states. 

In a biography of Grant published in 2001, Jean Edward Smith quoted historian William S. McFeely who observed that “no attorney general before or since ‘has been more vigorous in the prosecution of cases designed to protect the lives and rights of black Americans’”.

Grant believed in the power of the franchise; he thought that once African Americans had the right to vote, which was guaranteed by the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, their rights would be secure. But Grant did not anticipate the barbarous violence and virulent opposition that exploded across the South. 

Terror reigned as masked night riders burned black schools, intimidated voters and attacked, whipped and killed African Americans. The Klan was hellbent on dismantling the policies of Reconstruction. The Republican Party had to be crushed. In all forms of southern life and culture, black subservience and white supremacy had to be restored. 

The Klan raised its ranks from bitter ex-soldiers who could not accept the Confederacy’s defeat and from the sons of wealthy slaveholders who could not abide the loss of social standing and power after the war.

The worst violence occurred in South Carolina. Grant cited “a condition of lawlessness”, declared martial law and suspended the writ of habeas corpus. The Senate heard eloquent and wrenching testimonies of hundreds of African Americans who had been terrorized by the Klan. 

Maria Carter of Haralson County, South Carolina testified that Klansmen broke into her home, pointed a gun at her husband and frightened him to the point that he could not speak. They forced Carter’s husband to go with them to a neighbor’s house where they assaulted a woman so ferociously that Carter remembered that the house looked “as if somebody had been killing hogs there”. The men shot and then severely whipped the woman’s husband. Carter’s husband was beaten mercilessly; his clothes were blood soaked, and the next morning, they clung to his body.

With Akerman’s oversight, 600 Klansmen were convicted and 65 men were sent to the US penitentiary in Albany for sentences that could be as long as five years. The intervention of the federal government marked an important divergence from the norm of letting state and local authorities handle racial crimes. With the passage of the first Enforcement Act, Congress made it a federal offense to deprive a person of civil or political rights.

Akerman knew that destroying the Klan would require “extraordinary means”. To his mind, there was only one side in this fight, not “many”. There was no equivalence to be drawn between the Klan and the African Americans who had been attacked and murdered. 

Grant did not view the Confederates as heroes. He did not embolden them or stoke their resentment about the Confederacy’s defeat. Instead, after the Enforcement Acts were passed, he sent federal troops to the South and stated categorically that “insurgents were in rebellion against the authority of the United States”.

By 1872, the Klan had been defeated. The weight of the federal government broke the back of the organization and reduced racial violence throughout the South. Frederick Douglass declared that without Grant’s actions, black Americans likely would have been trapped in a condition similar to slavery. The violence did not end altogether, but the Klan was no longer a formidable player in American politics. Nor would it be until 50 years later, when the second Klan rose in the 1920s. 

In Ken Burns’ 1990 documentary, The Civil War, historian Barbara Fields explained, “The Civil War is not over until we today have done our part in fighting it.” The tragic events in Charlottesville have shown us just how urgent and necessary it is for us to continue the fight. There is still much to fight for. 

The right to vote needs protection against hysterical accusations of voter fraud, restrictions on registration, voter identification laws, decisions to relocate polling places at the last minute, the redrawing of district boundaries and the removal of names from voter rolls. 

Confederate monuments – built decades after the end of the Civil War during periods of extreme racial violence – must fall. 

The Civil War, Fields observed, “is still to be fought and regrettably it can still be lost”. The president has shown that we can expect nothing from him in terms of moral leadership. We have yet to see if other branches of government will take strong action to condemn white supremacy and carry on the fight.

Allyson Hobbs is associate professor of history and director of African and African American studies at Stanford University.

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