Search using this query type:

Advanced Search (Items only)

Government Reactions

During Reconstruction, the federal government kept their word to try and protect and preserve the rights and liberties of all Southerners, whether black, white, Republican, or Democrat. Yet their efforts to subdue Klan violence and regain some authority in the South was not enough to halt it altogether. The testimony of Dr. Pride Jones illustrates the different ways in which the federal and state government tried to suppress Klan violence. Dr. Jones was commissioned to keep the KKK activity to a minimum in Orange county by Governor William Holden. The Governor had received many letters of complaint from residents of Orange county about whites whipping and hanging blacks. Dr. Jones stated in the testimony given to him by the witnesses and victims of these crimes that they were executed by men in disguises. Thus no prosecutions were made against Klan members, because no one could positively identify who did what. But when Governor Holden and the General Assembly enacted the Shoffner Act, it gave Holden “the power to declare any county in a state of insurrection and, to protect life and property, declare martial law therein” (Jolley 15). The ordinance was intended to halt violence, the violence did indeed slow down, at least for a small amount of time. When it became clear that Governor Holden and the Republican majority were being threatened by Democratic extremists, and after Holden was impeached and removed from office, the federal government tried to intervene by sending detectives and Marshals to the South in order to get an idea of who perpetrated the violence and why.

Another example of local government action against Klan activity is shown in the testimony of Joseph G. Hester of Raleigh. A Deputy Marshall, he investigated a case involving the burning of a black church by Klan members. This time the Klan members were identified and arrested by the Deputy and the reason the members gave for burning the church down was that they simply “would not permit them to have the church” (Report 14).  Sometimes these tactics appeared to work, but not always. Because Klan members were usually masked, it was very hard for people to positively identify the men at fault. It was not just the Deputies and Commissioners that had trouble finding and prosecuting these men, judges also found it hard to control the Klan. One judge named Albion Tourgee tried to “crush the Klan bushwackers with an ‘iron heel’ but faced strong local opposition.” Witnesses were often difficult to find, and the Klan members usually had an excess of alibis. There were also white jurors who would not convict Klan members because they approved of the Klan’s behavior toward blacks and Republicans. Judge Tourgee noted that “it is no crime for a white man to cut a colored man open in Alamance” (Rable 103).  

Just having commissioners and Marshals from the north monitor activity in the South was not the only way the federal government chose to protect victims of racial and political violence on the part of Klan members. A number of laws were implemented after the end of the Civil War in order to restore order and keep violence to a minimum in the South. President Grant implemented the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870, which was meant to protect the rights of all male voting citizens, and gave Congress the ability to enforce it. The government cannot be said to have done all it could to protect the voting rights of all male citizens, due to the fact that the troops sent to protect these rights were “subordinate to local officials” and thus had no real power (Jolley 16). If the federal government actually wanted to make a real and lasting change, then keeping a Union force in the South with power to enforce laws would have had a greater effect.

A series of laws passed after the Fifteenth Amendment entitled “the Enforcement Acts” were put into effect to try and lower the amount of violence committed by Klan members. One of the acts, enacted in 1871, otherwise known as the Ku Klux law, was not very successful at deterring acts of assault and murder. In the Report of the Joint Select Committee, Congress asked Dr. Pride Jones if the law had any effect on the level of violence in the South, and the answer from Dr. Jones was a resounding “no” (5). Because there were not enough men to enforce federal law in the South, there was not much that could be done unless Union military occupation returned. According to historian J. Martinez, the Ku Klux Act was not enforced properly and “the statute was not as far-reaching as it might have been” (69). The government also did not spend enough money to spend on sending investigators to the South. The ones that they could afford did sometimes arrest Klan members, but more arrests proved to be an unachievable goal because “bands of desperadoes intimidated deputy marshals and even assassinated witnesses. The Klan’s victims were generally poor and illiterate men unlikely to bring their plight to the attention of federal officials, and...feared the consequences of doing so” (Rable 107). The government appeared to want to do something about the level of violence in the South, but the most it seemed they could do was take testimony in the form of the Joint Select Committee reports. Even when arrests were made, it did not have the impact intended other than to document the crimes and give national attention to the goings on in the South at the time.