The Ku Klux Klan
Behind the alienation of both the native whites and the better carpetbaggers was the fact that the Republican party in the South was increasingly dominated by unscrupulous manipulators who controlled the Negro vote. While one must not underestimate the significant progress made by the colored race during the postwar years, it must be admitted that they were largely ignorant and unprepared for their electoral responsibilities. Easily they fell under the sway of demagogues of both races. Election in the South became a byword and a travesty. Thousands of illiterate Negroes cast their ballots without knowing event he names of the men for whom they were voting. Election laws were deliberately framed to open the way for fraud. Ballots were inspected before going into the box, and Negroes seeking to cast Democratic ballots were held up by objections and by an effort to change their votes. Registration lists showed Negroes in proportion to population at a much higher ratio than the actual fact. Vote-buying became so common that Negroes came to expect; much of the bacon and ham mentioned as "relief" was distributed with an eye to election-day results. The colored voters in Florida, acting under instructions from Radical leaders, the motto seemed to be "Vote early and often." Starting in early morning they moved along in groups, voting "at every precinct" on a long "line of march," each time under assumed names. In advance of the voting hour ballots would be fraudulently deposited in the box. Party conventions were manipulated by Radical leaders, and nominations were forced by the bosses (sometimes military officers) in control. Reporting on the election of 1872 in Louisiana a committee of Congress stated that in their determination to have a legislature of their own party, the Republican returning board juggled election return, accepted false affidavits, and in some cases merely estimated "what the vote ought to have been." The whole proceeding was characterized as a "comedy of blunders and frauds."
By 1867 the Union League had become strongly intrenched in the South; and it proved an effective instrument in the organization of Radical Republican party among the Negroes. It was started in October, 1867, that the League had eighty-eight chapters in South Carolina, and that almost every Negro in the state was enrolled in the order. According to a statement of a Leaguer, every member was oath-bound to vote for those nominated by the order. The League, he said existed "for not other purpose than to carry the elections . . . " The Leagues "voted the Negroes like ‘herds of senseless cattle’" is the statement of competent observers, borne out by numerous instances similar to that of a South Carolina Negro who explained his vote by saying that the League was the "place where we learn the law." Another typical case was that of a Negro who was asked why he voted republican and replied, "I can’t read, and I can’t write . . . . We go by instructions. We don’t know nothing much."
What the Republicans accomplished by fraud the Democrats did by intimidation. From the very beginning the majority of Southern whites, especially the small farmers of the hill country, had been unwilling to concede political rights to the Negroes. Regarding the Radical governments as an "unjust and tyrannical power" which "had filled their state with mourning, beggared them, freed their slaves and as a last insult and injury made the ex-slave a political equal," they "resisted by intimidation, violence and murder." The most sensational, though not the most efficacious, aspect of this Southern white resistance to reconstruction was found in the fantastic and sinister operations of. the Ku Klux Klan. From small beginnings as a frolicking secret lodge the institution spread rapidly, though in somewhat haphazard fashion, throughout the South, attaining considerable dimensions within the years 1868 to 1871 - Primarily the Klan was an answer to the Union League, a foil to the carpetbagger, and a means of suppressing Negro militia units. Its weird terminology included provinces, dominions, and realms, culminating in an empire. With a grand wizard and ten genii at the top, the order was governed by such officers as grand dragons and hydras, titans, furies, and night-hawks. In the local chapter (den) members were ghouls, the master a cyclops.
The activities of the order took less the form of a general conspiracy than of local efforts to destroy Radical political organizations by intimidation and terrorization. Night rides of white-robed and hooded men on sheeted and masked horses bore partly the aspect of frolicking pranks and partly that of ghostly intimidation of superstitious Negroes. Not infrequently, however, the victims, seeing through the disguise, were terrorized rather by real danger of violence than by the ghoulish affectation of supernatural power. Klansmen occupied themselves in destroying Union League councils, breaking up bands of roving Negroes, whipping Negro militiamen, forcing victims to pledge non-support of the Radical politicians, scaring black men away from the polls, and coercing individual carpetbaggers and scalawags.
The Klan was not successful in its attempt to overthrow Radical rule. In the first place, its efforts were too glaringly criminal, and they occurred at a time when Northern opinion still supported a thoroughgoing Radical policy toward the South. In a series of "enforcement acts" Congress moved to outlaw the Klan and other similar vigilante organizations. The first of these measures, commonly known as the "force bill," was that of May 31, 1870. Designed to enforce the fifteenth amendment, it provided heavy penalties of fine and imprisonment where anyone by force, bribery, or intimidation should hinder or prevent citizens from voting. Cases of such hindrance were put under the jurisdiction of Federal courts, and for the better enforcement of court decisions the President was authorized to use 'the land or naval forces. By the same law congressional elections were taken under the wing of Federal regulation and abuses in connection therewith made punishable as crimes. These processes of Federal control were made more drastic by the second "force bill," passed on February 28, 1871. This was similar to the act of the previous May; it merely went further in the same direction.
With the Klan particularly in mind, Congress passed the third "force bill" on April 20, 1871- In intolerably long sentences the statute listed activities such as those of the Klan (the forming of conspiracies, resisting officers, threatening or injuring witnesses, going abroad in disguise for Ku Kluxers; they wanted the Negro and his friends to know that the entire white population of the state was against continuance of Republican rule. Republican meetings were disturbed by red-shirt horsemen who remarked loudly that "maybe they might kill a buck that day." Red-shirt companies fired cannon in the vicinity of Radical political rallies; some terrified Negroes were said to have believed that the war had begun again but most, no doubt, were simply aware of their own peril. The riflemen staged torchlight processions, made nocturnal raids against notorious carpetbaggers, and whipped Negroes who were politically conspicuous. They put the state under a kind of martial law. Even in the capital of Jackson, Governor Ames's wife reported, "the crack of the pistol or gun is as frequent as the barking of the dogs." The governor tried to organize his Negro supporters into militia companies, but he found that they had "not the courage or nerve-whatever it may be called-to act the part of soldiers." " In the dozen or so cases over the state when Negroes did resist, there occurred a race riot. In each instance the result was the same. Trained bands of white men were able to defeat the badly led Negroes; dozens of Negroes were killed, few if any whites were injured. So demoralized were Mississippi Republicans that the actual elections were unusually quiet. As one observer said, the Negroes were afraid to make any trouble and the whites did not need to. Virtually all the counties now passed under the control of native white administrations, and the Democrats gained heavy majorities in both houses of the legislature. Promptly they moved trumped-up impeachment charges against Governor Ames, only to be forestalled by his resignation.
All over the South whites followed similar illegal or extralegal procedures. The result was the collapse of most of the remaining carpetbag regimes and the restoration of what is euphemistically called "home rule." Tennessee had passed under conservative control in 1869; Virginia and North Carolina followed in 1870; Democrats assumed power in Georgia in 1871; Arkansas, Alabama, and Texas were "redeemed" in 1874; Mississippi was "restored" in 1876. After that only Louisiana, South Carolina, and Florida had Radical governments, a situation fraught with significance, since their electoral votes might easily determine the outcome of the presidential election of 1876.
Source: "The Civil War and Reconstruction" by Randall and Donald. (Part of Chapter 39)
This Page last updated 02/16/02
RETURN TO CIVIL WAR POTPOURRI PAGE