In May of 1872, Congress and the federal government were already well along in their pursuit of knocking down the Ku Klux Klan, but work was still ongoing. They were also in the (perhaps counterproductive, yet necessary) process of granting amnesty to former Confederates.
It’s odd. I had some trepidation about how to approach this issue. I think it is a little unhealthy that we live in a culture where the very idea of my writing on this topic somehow allows people to assume I’m complicit in the agenda — or even that I have cause to worry that people might do so. But let me say up front: The Klan is bad, y’all. It was/is a virulent offshoot of an angry backlash reaction to a horrible situation wherein there really weren’t any immediate winners, but the long-term benefits surely outweighed the costs. The Klan is what happens when disgruntled and disenfranchised groups decide the system won’t work for them, so they will work outside the system, to ill effect. The thing is, in some ways, the Klan was successful. And we have a LOT to learn from that, lest we be doomed to repeat it. But don’t misunderstand: The Klan is bad. OK? OK.
The first incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan emerged in 1866. Created by former Confederate soldiers, it developed into an decentralized organization of autonomously administered local units seeking the end of Northern influence presenting itself through Reconstruction. It sought to limit black education, economic advancement, voting rights, political and social status, and the right of African-Americans to bear arms. The Ku Klux Klan’s effort involved intimidating the Southern African-American population, Northerners working in the South after the Civil War, Southern Republicans, and schoolteachers brought south by the Freedmen’s Bureau. The methods of the Klan grew more violent, and it was most successful at taking the vote away black southerners.
In 1869, a federal grand jury declared the Ku Klux Klan to be a terrorist organization. In January 1871, Pennsylvania Republican senator John Scott convened a committee that took testimony from witnesses about Klan atrocities; this material was published in a 13-volume report in 1872. In February 1871, former Union general, Congressman Benjamin Butler of Massachusetts wrote and introduced federal legislation, the 1871 Klan Act. The bill gained favor after the governor of South Carolina appealed for federal troops to maintain order in the State. Reports of a riot and massacre in a Meridian, Mississippi courthouse, in which a black state representative narrowly escaped death, also added support for the bill. In 1871, President Ulysses S. Grant signed Butler’s legislation, which was used along with the 1870 Force Act, to enforce the civil rights provisions of the constitution.
Under the Klan Act, federal troops were used rather than state militias, and Klansmen were prosecuted in federal court, where juries often included blacks. Prosecutions were led by Attorney General Amos Tappan Ackerman. Federal government actions under the Klan Act from 1871 to 1874 severely crippled the original Klan. Still, the bloodiest single instance of racial violence in the Reconstruction era happened on Easter Suday of 1873: the Colfax Massacre in Louisiana. A group of white men, including members of the White League and the Ku Klux Klan, clashed with members of Louisiana’s almost all-black state militia at the local courthouse. The cause of the battle was ostensibly a contested local election, though racism and partisan politics were significant factors as well.
At the same time, Congress was struggling over what to do with the Southern states it had to return to the federal fold. Reconstruction was a bumpy, painful, and in some ways disastrous process. You can’t let enemies of the state just come waltzing back, but on the other hand, how much punishment can they bear? The 14th amendment to the Constitution, ratified in July 1868, provided that no person could hold any civil or military office under State or Federal Government who had previously taken an oath to support the Constitution while holding such a position and hen had engaged in rebellion against the United States. The amendment provided that the Congress, by a two-thirds vote in both Houses, could remove this disability, and between 1868 and 1872 a number of ex-Confederates, were granted congressional amnesty.
Even by the election of 1872, this was still an issue, with candidate Horace Greeley musing on allowing “peaceful secession” — an absurd idea given the war that had just been fought to prevent it. But by this time, most Northerners were also losing interest in Reconstruction. Proof of this is that Congress passed the Amnesty Act. The new bll removed all political disabilities except those upon lawmakers, military and naval officers, heads of departments and foreign ministers who had switched allegiance during the course of their service to the federal government. The effects of the Amnesty Acts were almost immediate. By 1876, Democrats had regained control of all but three states in the South. Republicans clung to power in South Carolina, Louisiana, and Florida, but only with the help of federal troops. Perhaps not coincidentally, the Klan was largely in decline by the 1880s.
In 1882, the Supreme Court ruled in United States vs. Harris that the Klan Act was partially unconstitutional, saying that Congress’s power under the Fourteenth Amendment did not extend to private conspiracies. However, the Force Act and the Klan Act were invoked in later civil rights conflicts. The Klan would surge in popularity again in the early 20th century, and again in the 1950s and ‘60s in response to the Civil Rights movement.
What’s really notable about all this to me, however, is that pretty much since this hate group’s inception, a majority of the population has deemed it wrong. We as a nation and society have come SO FAR from where we were 150 years ago. We have been free to debate, discuss, and I believe this is at least part of the reason that Martin Luther King, Jr., was able to say the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice. We have so many arguments over the Confederate flag, over monuments to “the losers” and “the traitors.” I don’t mind the arguments, but I hate the straw man that the only options are “complete embrace” or “complete suppression.” Europe has banned the swastika; anti-Semitism is alive and well there. Eradication of the symbol has not eradicated the sentiment.
We don’t need to wipe out our history; we need to learn from it. We need to use it as a tool against those who don’t know or understand where they come from. We need the precedent of slavery as a tool to shame racists; we need the precedent of the Civil War as a (perhaps imperfect, but certainly successful) reflection of the moral universe bending at least a little toward justice. We need to see Brock Turner and shame him. We need to see Peter Jonsson and Carl-Fredrik Arnt and celebrate them. Shame is a powerful tool, and one we are falling out of practice with. We need to stop making excuses and start enforcing our standards. And to do that, we need more discourse, not less. We need more thoughtful discussion, less knee-jerk reaction of hiding bad stuff or pretending it doesn’t happen. We need more accountability and fewer blind eyes. And for all of that, we need history. We need to be able to point to our past and say “this, and this.” We need to be able to point to our mistakes and say “Never again.”
And we need to be able to recognize that no human—currently alive or in the pages of history—is purely one or the other. The ancient Egyptians had a concept called ma’at. Ma’at was a goddess representing concepts like truth, balance, morality, and justice. Souls were weighed against Ma’at’s feather, and if lighter, the departed were welcomed to the paradise of afterlife. In studying history and judging our contemporaries, we need to be able to weigh souls in the same way. We should forgive shortcomings, but we must be able to weigh their heroism and villainy and decide which way the balance tips in each instance. Thomas Jefferson did a lot of really amazing things for this nation. We know he also held some pretty despicable views on race and was somewhat hypocritical in his calling for the abolition of slavery while owning 600 slaves himself. Should we blast his face off Mount Rushmore? I would argue not: the good outweighs the bad. Hitler brought about some fantastic economic reforms and did some great things for Germany. His policies also killed six million Jews. Should he get a monument? I’m saying no.
So when people talk about the Klan, or the Confederate flag, or the windows in the National Cathedral, or a statue of Robert E. Lee, we need to listen to what is really being said. What are we really honoring? Are we endorsing racism? Are we acknowledging an icky part of our history that we need to make sure doesn’t repeat itself? Are we celebrating a man who fought valiantly on the wrong side based on what we might even today consider the right (or at least justifiable) reasons? These are conversations that should not be muffled.
Hark back to the NBC PSA jingle. As my son likes to sing, “The More You Know…”