"Hundreds of families of poor colored people in both Alamance and Caswell counties were being thrown out of their homes and work for having voted in the recent election" (Trelease 1971, 193).
The Ku Klux Klan began its political and racially motivated attacks in 1868, around the time Governor Holden was elected to become Governor of North Carolina. While there are many different ideas as to why the Ku Klux Klan rises in power, there are a few widely agreed upon motivations. It is known that many members of the Klan felt that white women needed protection from African Americans. Many whites feared the sexuality of the “Black Race” (Zuber 1969, 25). African Americans were also punished for getting “too friendly” with white women. A strong sense of black men going too far and too fast in government and the social world was another fear shared amongst this group. “They would have said he was getting ‘uppity’ and had to be kept down, not in slavery of course, but in a low social position” (Zuber, 25). This sentiment is seen a lot in anti-Reconstruction rhetoric. Many whites felt that African Americans were receiving benefits they had not yet “earned” and the government was getting too involved in “uplifting” them. This is an action that was associated with Republicans which went further to demonize that political party in the eyes of conservatives, Democrats, and the KKK. It is also what led to the KKK’s most agreed upon motivation in politics, the weakening of the Republican Party through any means necessary, whether that was legal or illegal.
The Klan began by attacking African Americans and republicans in several counties throughout North Carolina. Monroe County was a huge staging ground for KKK arsonist who would burn down houses and barns in an effort to drive out African Americans and white Republicans and keep them from voting. The Klan continued to push the law by going into African American homes and shooting them dead in cold blood. In one notable episode, KKK members shot an African American woman and her five children and then burned the house down with them inside; according to a participant’s later confession, one of the party “killed one of the children by kicking its brains out with the heel of his boot” (Trelease, 192). Reports of Klan activities including raids, burnings, and murders continue to appear throughout North Carolina, primarily in Chatham, Orange, Alamance, Caswell, and Rockingham counties. Alamance and Caswell would become the birth grounds for the Kirk-Holden war and the trial that preceded it, but it was a combination of all of these un-punished acts that led to Holden’s appeal to the Legislature for assistance.
As Klan violence continued, fear of their power and dominance grew. With clear success and lack of punishment, the Klan seemed to have nothing to hold it back. Their actions continue to garner support from newspapers and prominent members in the government who sympathized with their goals and ideas. Josiah Turner, editor of the Sentinel newspaper in North Carolina would continue to praise the KKK in its efforts to remove the Radical Republicans from office. His newspaper however would always give contradictory reports about the Klan itself, ranging from the KKK being an invention of the Republicans to hurt Democrats to denouncing the Klan as an entity all together. The influence of this paper and of other leaders throughout the state kept others from getting to invested into the growing violence. Many citizens would grow to a form of apathy in regards to their fellow citizens, especially towards blacks who many whites looked down upon already and were willing to believe accusations thrown at them. The case of Caswell Holt shows the power of a civil court system and the care of its people towards a black victim of a hate crime. After being accused of thievery and convicted, by a trial of Klan members at a secret meeting, Holt was hung up on a tree, beaten, and ordered to leave town for not admitting to his guilt. Instead of leaving however, Holt, went to the county courthouse to write a formal complaint against his aggressors. This would usually be a case that would be investigated for free and triad at a court on gratis, but Holt, being a black man, had to pay a lawyer “ten bushels of corn to prosecute the cases” (Trelease, 193). When the accused came to court for a preliminary hearing, Holt could provide no willing witnesses to support his identification of the defendants who all swore they had been somewhere else on the night they were accused. The Republican magistrate Peter Harden had no alternative but to release them. A year later, Holt would receive old visitors who would shoot him, rape his daughters, and destroy all his possessions while facing no punishment or justice. Holt would an angry man who “knew it was pointless to appeal to the law” (Trelease, 193). Here then is a case that is repeated throughout the state, where an African American male is accused of wrong doing, given no trial, and faced punishment by racist vigilantes who face no threat of punishment for their actions. Once a trial seems to take place, even though Holt has to approach the grounds of bribery to even get anyone to hear his case, the investigators seem to do little work in Holt’s interest and are forced to let the suspects go. Not only has the Ku Klux Klan been able to commit crimes, the civil authority has not the power, or even the willingness to go through and stop them.
Although crime continued to spread, it was in Alamance and Caswell that Klan seemed unstoppable. In these two counties they would commit open murders to extremely prominent figures in the Republican Party that would force Holden’s hand against these two specific areas. Fearing the use of Military action, some counties began to quiet down their assaults against Republicans and African Americans. Other counties with Klan members began quieting down after Holden appeased them with small Democratic appointments and pardons, but in the two said counties, no appeasement could be arranged. On the night of February 26, 1870, Ku Klux Klan members would ride out in the robes, invade a man’s house, drag him out of said house, and hang him up in the middle of town square, dead. This man was Wyatt Outlaw, the Graham town councilman, and founder and president of the local Union league. He was reported to be the foremost black man in the county (Trelease, 205). In a county where the vote between Republican and Democrat can easily be swayed one way or the other, Klan members see a real need to scare of the black voters who tended to vote Republican. Killing Wyatt, while claiming he performed some crime, would help scare away the black vote, seeing as how the Klan can now kill even significant members of government without fear of justice. When one witness reported seeing two of Outlaw’s killers returning home, he was deemed insane and soon disappeared out of sight. Two months later, this witness’s body would be discovered, weighted down with stones, in a mill pond. Klan members and sympathizers would blame the witness’s death on “Negroes acting at the behest of his wife” (Trelease, 205). No arrests, no suspects, no working civil authority.
With the murder of Wyatt Outlaw, only one more violent act would be seen before Holden put forth the full strength of the Shoffner act. This would occur in Caswell County with the murder of John W. Stephens, a unionist during the war who showed a willingness to work with African Americans on the basis of equality and friendship. Stephens was acknowledged as the Republican leader of the county and was known for helping African Americans in any situation, an obvious target for the Ku Klux Klan. On may 21st, the ex-sheriff of Caswell County, Frank A. Wiley, would lead Stephens to a solitary room in the guise of friendship. Stephens would die in that room, being murdered by Klan members who were waiting for him to enter. As with any murder by the Klan at this time, it would be blamed on Black men and no arrests on the actual killers would be made by the civil authorities. In 1873 the New York Times would print an article detesting the amnesty of the suspects to this murder, while illustrating the murder to the best of their knowledge. “Stephens was surprised to find the room full of men, and was struck with horror when a rope, fixed as a lasso, was thrown over his neck from behind, and he was told by the spokesman of the Kuklux crowd that he…must die” (New York Times 1873). Although this was years after the fact, it does a good job of showing how others at this period in time recognized the lack of justice being distributed in North Carolina. One of the murders, John G. Lea, would eventually have his confession read after his death, according to his will, which illustrates all the events that occurred to the victim, Stephens, and the murderers. The confession holds that the ex-sheriff was a Klan member, or at least helped the Klan murder Stephens. It states that “Stevens was tried by the Ku Klux Klan and sentenced to death. He had a fair trial before a jury of twelve men” (Lea 1919). The confession continues to show how Lea was able to avoid arrests until Holden’s forces under Commander Kirk finally came in to arrest them. What becomes significant in the confession however is when Lea talks with his Judge James Boyd. According the confession, Boyd says, “Lea, I was a Ku Klux. I have disgraced myself and my little wife." I asked him how. "I turned State's evidence." Why did you do it? He replied "Moral cowardice” (Lea). This is quickly followed by Boyd telling Lea not to worry because he “would never expose him” (Lea). This confession then, not only shows us how civil authority could not hurt the murderers of an innocent man, but also how those in the government were not willing to even prosecute Klan members because they either sympathized with them, or were part of the Klan themselves.