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Governor Holden's Actions Against the Ku Klux Klan

Governor Holden’s actions against the Klan ultimately led to his impeachment. He paid special attention to Klan violence in Alamance and Caswell counties. Governor Holden and his supporters justified his actions against the North Carolina Klan as attempts to protect the citizens’ voting rights in those counties. Holden made a proclamation to the newly freed African Americans of North Carolina that stated, “It is my duty, as far as I may, to render the government a 'terror to evil doers, and a praise to them that do well' - and this I will endeavor to do in relation to the whole people of the State of North Carolina, 'without fear, favor or affection, reward, or hope of reward.’”[4] (Item 934) Governor Holden made it clear that he would protect the rights of freedmen.

As Klan violence escalated in Alamance and Caswell counties, Governor Holden decided to take action against the Klan. He issued a proclamation that “argued for the constitutionality of the established government and warned against outrages.” (Folk and Shaw 1982, 211) His second proclamation was a “warning that bands of masked and armed men must cease going about at night creating fear and doing violence.” (Folk and Shaw 1982, 211) The last proclamation that Governor Holden made “noticed in more detail various crimes and misdemeanors for which the Klan was blamed and attempted to arouse public opinion to aid in suppressing the disorders.” (Folk and Shaw 1982, 211) These proclamations are important to understand because these first actions taken against the Klan were not violent or oppressive. The Klan had three chances to stop the violence they conducted against the freedmen and white Republican Party supporters. (Item 2712)

When the Klan did not respond to these proclamations, Governor Holden sought help from the legislature. In a message from Holden to the General Assembly, the Governor stated, “Gentlemen: - Allow me respectfully and earnestly to call your attention to the necessity which exists for such amendments to the militia law as will enable the executive to suppress violence and disorder in certain localities of this State, and to protect the persons of citizens, their lives and their property.” (Item 2763) Legislators responded to this request with the passage of the Shoffner Act, which allowed the governor to not only declare counties to be in a state of insurrection but also send in the militia to restore order. The Klan responded to this act with more violence. In a message from Governor Holden to the General Assembly Holden stated, “I have information of not less than twenty-five murders committed by members of this Klan, in various Counties of the State, and of hundreds of cases of scourging and whipping. Very few, if any, convictions have followed in these cases. The civil law was powerless. One State Senator was murdered in the open day in a County Court-house, and another State Senator was driven from the State, solely on account of their political opinions.”[5] (Item 2712)

These public murders and whippings were in response to Governor Holden’s proclamation. The continued violence prompted Governor Holden to organize a militia to restore order throughout counties wrought with Klan activity. In 1870, he officially declared Alamance County in a state of insurrection. (Folk and Shaw 1982, 212-213) Caswell County was in much the same shape as Alamance County, and Governor Holden declared it in a state of insurrection also. In his last attempt to oust the Klan from these counties, Governor Holden ordered militia companies, led by Colonel George W. Kirk, to enter these counties and restore order. Colonel Kirk arrested many prominent members of society as being members of the Klan.

In an excerpt from his memoirs, Governor Holden justified his actions by stating, “And also by virtue of an Act of the General Assembly, passed at the session of 1869-'70, which provided that the ‘Governor is hereby authorized and empowered, whenever in his judgment the civil authorities in any County are unable to protect its citizens in the enjoyment of life and property, to declare such County to be in a state of insurrection, and to call into active service the militia of the State to such an extent as may become necessary to suppress such insurrection; and in such case the Governor is further authorized to call upon the President for such assistance, if any, as in his judgment may be necessary to enforce the law.”[6] (Item 2712) The act justified Governor Holden’s actions because it ultimately gave him the power to protect citizens’ rights. Holden viewed the violence of the Klan as a threat, and the act stated that Holden could use the militia to suppress insurrection when deemed necessary and in this situation it was necessary.

The Klan members that were taken into custody were brought before the United States district court, and they were released, which in the eyes of Governor Holden was a political defeat. Governor Holden had suspended the writ of habeas corpus, but he did not have the authority to do so. As a result, the men who had been charged with Klan violence requested their freedom. (Folk and Shaw 1982, 217-218) The corrupt justice system of Alamance and Caswell counties aided in the release of these Klan members. Many white citizens ignored Klan violence because they were either sympathetic to or fearful of Klan actions. Coroners often ruled KKK terrorism as deaths at the hands of person unknown while trial magistrates accepted false alibis. Historian Allen Trelease states, “The other half of the community—Negroes and Republicans—was intimidated and helpless. Many victims were afraid to identify their attackers for fear of worse to come, and witnesses declined to testify.” (Trelease 1971, 205) The justice system in these counties was flawed and corrupt. The best chance these citizens had of justice and protection was the military intervention that Governor Holden ordered. On the topic of the persecution of the Klan prisoners historian Jim Brisson states, “The prosecution presented sufficient evidence for Chief Justice Pearson to indict forty-nine of the prisoners. Pearson ordered the trials to be held in the local courts of Alamance and Caswell counties, however, and not one of those tried was convicted of any crime. The fact that none of the Klansmen's trials in county court yielded a single conviction confirmed Governor Holden's assertion that the civil government was powerless against the KKK. Whether it was through intimidation, collusion, or outright perjury, Klansmen ensured that their brethren would not be punished for their crimes. Although Holden overstepped his authority when he suspended habeas corpus, he considered it the only avenue available to him at the time to bring Klansmen to justice.” (Brisson 2011, 151-152) The local justice system was useless in the prosecution of the men arrested in connection with Klan violence. Many members of society overlooked Klan violence because of their connection with the Klan. Governor Holden’s intervention was necessary to protect the citizens, but without the support of the local government Holden’s actions were counterproductive. (Trelease 1971, 189-207)

The actions that Governor Holden took against the Klan proved detrimental to his political career. His military occupation of Alamance and Caswell counties failed, and the Klan proved successful in intimidating freedmen from voting in the upcoming election. The goal of Governor Holden had been to protect the citizens’ voting rights, so he took action that he felt was necessary to accomplish that goal. Governor Holden stated: “Maj. Moore states the fact that the new State governments were greatly disturbed by the Ku Klux. He also does me the justice to state that, in repeated proclamations I demanded that violence should cease. This I did in five proclamations and in numerous letters and orders, for the space of eighteen months, from October 1868 until June 1870; but all my appeals for law and order and peace addressed to both parties, were in vain. One of two courses was before me: Either to enforce the law with a strong hand, and thus make the fight of the sword, and not the use of it, as I did, the instrument for restoring civil power; or to resign my place and skulk from my oath and my duty into retirement. I could not do the latter, and hence I acted. I have no doubt I made blunders and mistakes in some of the means which I employed to suppress the Ku Klux, but let me ask, did the Union and Confederate commanders make no mistakes in their operations during the late war?”[7] (Item 918) This statement shows the dilemma Governor Holden faced. He had to choose between ignoring the violence that was taking place or using extreme measures to protect citizens. In the end, he felt that the only way to protect the citizens of Alamance and Caswell county was to act with force, but by suspending the writ of habeas corpus, Governor Holden sealed his fate because he did not have the authority to do so.

[4] "Memoirs of W.W. Holden," Documenting the American South, accessed October 22, 2014,

[5] "Memoirs of W.W. Holden," Documenting the American South, accessed November 4, 2014,

[6] "Memoirs of W.W. Holden,"Documenting the American South, accessed November 4, 2014,

[7] "Memoirs of W. W. Holden,"Documenting the American South, accessed October 2, 2014,

Governor Holden's Actions Against the Ku Klux Klan