Saturday, April 24, 2021

Flashback, April 1871: President Grant Strikes at KKK

With violence aimed at suppressing African-American voting rights rising alarmingly in the South, Ulysses Grant signed the Ku Klux Klan Act, giving the President a weapon to stamp out the first major domestic terrorist organization after the Civil War.

The Federal oversight and intervention called for in the Ku Klux Klan Act (or, as it was formerly called, the Third Enforcement Act) was unprecedented, but so was the threat posed to American citizens in the former Confederacy during Reconstruction

If the issues surrounding this threat in the postbellum South—access to voting rights, a white-dominant party seeking to retain its entrenched privilege, and extremists resorting to new violent methods to check the rising power of African-Americans—sound familiar to contemporary readers, they should.

The remnants of the defeated slave states didn’t waste time trying to reconfigure their old social, political and economic order through new means of subjugating African-Americans. The Ku Klux Klan (KKK), founded in 1866 by Confederate Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, had evolved two years later from a fraternal order into a violent, secret one that, under white robes, hoods and the cover of night, sought to:

*whip freedmen who violated the code of white superiority (e.g., refusing to take off one’s hat in the presence of whites, interracial couples);

*kill African-Americans who exercised the right to vote, or their white Republican allies; and

*intimidate other members of these groups into silent compliance.

Passage of the 14th and 15th Amendments, ensuring “due process of law” and voting rights for all citizens, respectively, only increased the tempo of the violence, which reached highs especially before elections.

Two prior Enforcement Acts, adopted in 1870 and early 1871, authorized the appointment of election supervisors to counteract electoral fraud, bribery and intimidation of voters, and conspiracies to prevent the exercise of constitutional rights, and strengthened enforcement powers in large cities.

Initially, President Grant hoped this would be enough to curb the terror. Yet, as Congressional testimony revealed, violence continued, with witnesses reluctant to testify for fear of retaliation, Klansmen unwilling to inform on each other, and juries refusing to convict in those cases brought. 

Nor were politicians in the South able or often even willing to intervene: Democratic officeholders, if not KKK members, were often sympathetic to it, and Republican governors feared that using African-American troops would only start a race war.

Initial postwar legislation had left the prosecution of private criminal acts to local law enforcement. But with the new legislation, the federal government was stepping in.

To Democrats, the new legislation came to be nicknamed “The Force Acts”. In particular, they complained that the Ku Klux Klan Act authorized the suspension of habeas corpus—i.e., suspects would be arrested and held without bail—declarations of martial law, and the use of federal troops to arrest violators of the act and to break up “bands of disguised marauders.”

This portion of the legislation was the most legally and politically problematic. During the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln had suspended the writ of habeas corpus, arguing the move was necessary to quell the rebellion. 

Although the Supreme Court had been reluctant to deal with the issue while the war was raging, it ruled a year after its conclusion, in Ex parte Milligan, that the President did not have the authority to apply military tribunals to citizens when civil courts still operated. How much it would ignore the Grant Administration’s treatment of habeas corpus was uncertain.

Even members of Grant’s own party were not all behind the legislation. So-called “moderate Republicans” such as Lyman Trumbull expressed grave doubts about its constitutionality, and members of the President’s own Cabinet privately complained about listening to Attorney General Amos Akerman report frequently on KKK depredations in the South.

But those directly facing the terror argued that these were legal niceties and action must be taken. Grant was particularly careful to use his powers concerning habeas corpus sparingly, in only nine South Carolina counties. Yet, under Akerman’s aggressive and inspired leadership, other provisions in the legislation were used to the hilt, with federal grand juries bringing approximately 3,400 indictments against the KKK, resulting in more than 1,100 convictions.

Although Southerners saw Grant as doing too much in the South, Radical Republicans such as Sen. Charles Sumner believed that he had done too little, and very late even at that. But within the sphere the President had determined, he had moved decisively.

As historian James M. McPherson observed in Ordeal By Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction: “The government’s vigorous action in 1871-1872 did bring at least temporary peace and order to large parts of the former Confederacy. As a consequence, the 1872 election was the fairest and most democratic presidential election in the South until 1968.”

With adverse Supreme Court decisions and the withdrawal of Federal troops from the South after the 1876 election, Southern whites were able increasingly to roll back the political and economic gains of freedmen.  

As for the KKK, it has reemerged three different times since then: in the decade after the 1916 film Birth of a Nation, when it broadened its terror campaigns to encompass Roman Catholics and Jews as well as blacks; in the midcentury civil-rights era, when it concentrated again largely on African-Americans; and in the last four years, as part of a larger nationalist movement that has grown 55%, according to a 2020 report from the Southern Poverty Law Center.

The Ku Klux Klan Act, while little enforced for much of the 20th century, now forms Section 1983 of the United States Code and is the basis for federal civil rights lawsuits across the country, according to Nicholas Mosvick's blog post for the National Constitutional Center.

It has become even more relevant as the basis of a lawsuit against former President Donald Trump and ally Rudy Giuliani for allegedly conspiring with a pair of hate groups to storm the U.S. Capitol and block the Electoral College count in January.

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