You hop in a time machine and set the dials for 137 years – after a few seconds you find yourself in 1877 South Carolina. You’re thinking to yourself “Let’s see – the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments have all been passed, so blacks should be enjoying their legal rights as citizens!” But what’s this? An alarmingly small amount of blacks are turning out in the voting booths, and a local resident informs you that the KKK is keeping them from turning out, targeting blacks, as well as carpetbaggers (a Northerner who had relocated to the South, aligning themselves with Republican politics in order to profit from the instability) and scalawags (whites in the South who supported the Republican party after the Civil War). Yes, Reconstruction is not what the name suggests. Although three amendments to the Constitution had been passed since the end of the Civil War, granting blacks legal and civil rights, racism was alive and well, nearly to the levels of the pre-Civil War era. Rutherford B Hayes had been elected president and, although he was a Republican, he agreed to remove federal troops from former Confederate states, giving relatively free reign to racist terror organizations, namely the Ku Klux Klan, to impose their will in the face of blacks, white supporters, and even the frightened law. And even though the North wasn’t much help – they chose to ignore the elephant in the room and deal with their own problems (of which they had many) – the South was the true killer of Reconstruction, through the threats and violence committed by the KKK that prevented blacks from exercising their rights.
To be sure, the hands of the North were not clean from the blood of killing Reconstruction – they essentially ignored the issue both because it wasn’t “their problem”, solely focusing on their own issues, and because people in the North believed that blacks were not ready for the new set of rights given to them. To quote Gerald Danzer, “….many Northern voters shifted their attention to such national concerns as the Panic of 1873 and corruption in Grant’s administration….” (C). Economic and political turmoil caused many in the North to pay less attention to ongoing violence in the South. The cartoon shows Ulysses Grant fishing through a barrel labeled with a myriad of issues more relevant to the average Northerner, showing how many problems the administration was attempting to deal with (C2). When the issue of Reconstruction was brought up, however, many Northerners believed that blacks were not educated enough to exercise the rights given to them. In 1873, the liberal Boston Evening Transcript published an article saying “the blacks, as a people, are unfitted for the proper exercise of political duties…. The rising generation of … blacks needed a period of probation and instruction…” (D). They thought that in order to be able to properly use their newfound political rights, blacks needed a period in which to become more educated and versed in the subjects. A 1874 Harper’s Weekly cover shows black congressmen in a derogatory light; they are depicted as loud, unruly, and look extremely cartoonish and monkey-like (D2).
Pure violence, including killing, is one avenue the KKK went down in order to achieve their goals of keeping the blacks oppressed during Reconstruction. In May of 1870, a North Carolina senator by the name of John Stephens was murdered by the terror organization. Albion Tourgee, former Union army soldier and Judge during reconstruction, describes the killing in a letter to Republican Senator Joseph Abbott: “He was foully murdered by the Ku-Klux in the Grand Jury room of the Court House on Saturday….He was stabbed five or six times, and then hanged on a hook in the Grand Jury room…” (A). The Ku-Klux Klan, stopping at nothing to kill somebody standing in their way, orchestrated the murder in the Court House. Not only does this show their willingness to use violence to accomplish their goals, but also highlights the fact that people in the South either supported the KKK or were simply too scared and intimidated to do anything about their actions. As to be expected, they targeted blacks as well. In Georgia in 1869, they whipped a former slave turned Georgia State Legislator “a thousand licks, with sticks and straps that had buckles on the end of them” for voting for the Radical Republicans. Aside from plain violence, the KKK also made use of threats and intimidation to accomplish their mission. For example, their murdering Senator Stephens was not solely operating on the purpose to remove an enemy – they wanted to send a message. Doing it in a public place like a courtroom, as well as hanging him afterwards, no doubt gets that message sent – that the KKK is not to be messed with, and that anyone who does not act in accordance to their goals can and will be dealt with. Another clear instance of the Klan using threats to their advantage is a cartoon published anonymously in the Independent Monitor in 1868. It depicts the KKK as the donkey in the hanging, thus showing that the KKK were the perpetrators; the victims were a carpetbagger from Ohio (as seen by his bag with “Ohio” written on it) and another white, most likely a scalawag (A2). They had done hangings before and this cartoon serves as a warning to whites who do not share the same viewpoint as the KKK. The whipping of the former slave sets an example for any blacks who thought it would be a good idea to try to voice their opinions and side openly with the Republicans. Colby, the former slave, noted in his testimony to the House and Senate in 1872, noted, “No man can make a free speech in my county. I do not believe it can be done anywhere in Georgia.” (B). The Ku Klux Klan, by making an example out of Colby, effectively suppressed the state of Georgia – nobody wanted to speak out in fear that their fate may end up being similar to his. Further adding to this intimidation factor is the cartoon from Harper’s Weekly depicting the incident – it shows two men each holding a gun to either side of Colby’s head, with a crowd in the background simply watching, demonstrating the power the Klansmen had over the general public (B2).
You continue to look around, becoming increasingly disappointed in what you thought would be a more progressive South. After all, the Civil War had ended twelve years prior – why, then, does it seem that not much has changed? The KKK might as well be the Confederacy as they seem to run things around the area in which you find yourself, and because of this unfortunate fact the blacks are unable to make use of the rights recently given to them. You shake your head as you again return to your own thoughts, thinking, “Sure, the North could’ve stepped in and helped, but down here is where the real problem itself is taking place, and nothing can be done to stop the KKK.” It is true – the Ku Klux Klan had a relatively strong grip on the South during the time and the North was too caught up in economic crises and political scandals to be worried about blacks and their defenders being mistreated. It was not anything new at the time, after all. You get back into your time machine and prepare to return to 2014 as you say to yourself, “Maybe it’s just better to be glad that we’ve made so much progress than to obsess over what could and should have gone better to achieve such progress.”
A : Albion Tourgee, Letter on Ku Klux Klan Activities. New York Tribune, May 1870.
A2: Independent Monitor, September 1, 1868. Alabama Department of Archives and History, Montgomery, Alabama.
B: Abram Colby, testimony to a joint House and Senate Committee in 1872.
B2: Harper’s Weekly, October 21, 1876.
C: Gerald Danzer et al., The Americans, McDougal Littell, 1998
C2: Harper’s Weekly, 1876
D: Heather Cox Richardson, The Death of Reconstruction: Race, Labor and Politics in the Post-Civil War North, 1865-1901. Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2001.
D2: The cover of Harper’s Weekly, March 14, 1874