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Albion W. Tourgee

Albion Tourgee, a Northern Republican, primarily known as a carpetbagger, he was devotedly involved in North Carolina’s black community during Reconstruction. Tourgee was very influential in North Carolina; he coauthored the state’s revised civil codes and served as a state superior court justice from 1868-1874. The position he was in he witnessed firsthand the brutal politics of white conservatives. During his time as superior court justice, the Ku Klux Klan terrorism had reached its pinnacle and his district had some of the most notorious Klan outrages.  Tourgee personally faced threats and intimidation by the Klan and its sympathizers. (Tourgee 2010, 6) His close friend and mentee, John W. Stephens, was murdered in 1870 at the hands of the Klan. Stephen’s death fueled Tourgee even further to stop the Klan. Tourgee, through his writings, creates a vivid eyewitness testimony; his passion exudes off the page. His writing’s consists of his letters; in those letters are his responses to the Klan violence spreading through the state, the actions he took and the ones he felt necessary for Governor Holden and the Republican Party to take.

Tourgee made it clear his belief equal and just law, on the equal rights for all and he made them clear through his actions. In January of 1870, Tourgee wrote a letter to the editor of the North Carolina Standard, illustrating his enemies’ methods and his attempts to counter them. As superior court justice in North Carolina, his jurisprudence befell attack due to its alleged political biases. In this particular case he focused his letter on, he set aside a guilty verdict of a black man convicted on larceny based on weak evidence. Sympathizers of the Ku Klux Klan accused Tourgee of favoritism. (Tourgee 2010, 46) In order to defend his decision, Tourgee explained his conduct in the case and the basis for it which was his ideal of color blind justice. “I shall continue to act upon my own sense of justice, my own apprehension of the law, and my own conviction of duty entirely unmindful of whether the same please friend or foe, accords with the administration of “wild justice” in the county of Orange or elsewhere or not. I prize my own self-respect too highly to do otherwise, and believing as I do that justice should at least be “color blind,” I shall know no man by the hue of his skin.” (Tourgee 2010, 46) This ideal was powerful especially in the time of Reconstruction, an ideal that the Klan used violence to destroy. Tourgee knew that, his verdicts were based upon what was equal, just and fair, threats upon his life did not deter him from that. He believed strongly in the constitution and used the law to uphold it. During the Klan violence, Tourgee became painfully aware that using the justice and legal system along with the constitution was not going to provide equal protection for the citizens of North Carolina. Within his district, the Klan outrages were some of the most abominable. He had exhausted all his efforts using the court system to stop the Klan, he could not convict them, and hence they were free to continue terrorizing citizens. In a letter to Holden, he described the problems and the difficulty in securing convictions. The ability to identify the said persons or suspects could not be done with accordance to what the grand jury required. “Many cases of very serious outrages were, however, brought to the attention of the Grand Jury, and the court in which the connection between the act and any identified persons could not be clearly, and in some of them not established at all. In some cases the disguise was perfect, or the acts of violence were performed by strangers, so that identification was utterly impossible.” (Raper 1985, 160) The ability to identify the said accusers of these horrific crimes was impossible eyewitness testimony, was not clear enough to grant a conviction. Not only were eyewitness identifications hard to be proven accurate, many witnesses were fully aware of the horrific violence the Klan could do, they refused to testify for fear of their lives and their families’. The most detrimental aspect in the struggle to receive convictions were the alibis that the men provided. “One of the parties was tried and though his identification by the party beaten was most complete and positive, he proved a perfect alibi without a particle of trouble. The jury very properly rendered a verdict of “Not Guilty”…I have no idea that one of these men can be legally convicted of crime.” (Raper 1985, 160)  Tourgee knew that these men would continue to provide these alibis with no trouble, and they would be free to continue on their spree of terror. He had exhausted all efforts and he knew his fellow colleagues throughout the state were fighting a battle with the Klan they could not win. He declared it was time for the Republican Party and Governor Holden to take direct action, to call in the militia, to protect the citizens of North Carolina.

After the death of his mentee, John W. Stephens, Tourgee infuriated with the lack of action taken by Governor Holden and the Republican Party wrote a letter to Senator Joseph C. Abbott. In detail, he gave a testimony of the brutality of the Ku Klux Klan violence. Tourgee recounted the atrocities that occurred in his district, “twelve murders, nine rapes, eleven arsons, seven mutilations, four or five thousand houses broken into, people drug out of their homes, seven or eight hundred persons beaten or mistreated.” Again he made it clear the “lack of the ability in the laws to punish is fully known to all.” Tourgee declared the time for the Republican Party and Governor Holden to step up and take action had passed. “Yet the government sleeps,” while men such as Tourgee, Stephens and Outlaw, were in the heart of the violence fighting for not only their safety but that of the citizens of North Carolina, the Republican party was doing nothing. These men were being murdered, merely sacrificed, because of party politics. Tourgee considered them cowards, letting men “slaughter their citizens” while they debated on whether or not to take action. He felt as if the south was “simply a laboratory where every demagogue may carry on his reconstructionary experiment at will.” (Tourgee 2010, 50) The Klan carried on their violence as they pleased with hopes they could reverse all Reconstruction efforts, they did this with no punishment, no one to stop them. “Congress has the control of the militia and can organize its own force in every county in the United States…The same congress has the undoubted right to guarantee and provide a republican government and protect every citizen . . . Yet we suffer and die in peace and murderers walk around with the blood yet fresh upon their garments, unharmed, unquestioned and unchecked.” (Tourgee 2010, 51) The militia should have been formed already and suppressing the Klan long before the deaths of innocent men had occurred. Tourgee, provided the senator a remedy that he believed would be the solution needed to stop the Klan. He stated Congress pass legislation which stated that it be illegal to go armed and masked or disguised, or go masked or disguised and armed at night time illegal and give the states and their courts to inflict the law. The second part of his remedy was to organize a militia, he was very specific about not creating a state militia it would not be taken as serious and would just be seen more as a “nuisance”, he called for a national militia, they would be more effective. In organizing the militia Tourgee deemed it necessary to, “arm as many as may be necessary in each county to enforce its laws.” The final part of his remedy, put detectives to work, to get a better understanding of the organization and to work with the militia to counter their moves. It is crucial to note that the law declaring it illegal to go masked and disguised and armed was made into legislation and Governor Holden did have a team of detectives working to combat the Klan. The militia was formed but just a state one, Tourgee warned that it would not be as effective as needed and just be more of a nuisance, he unfortunately was correct. A critical part of his remedy was the national militia and that it needed to be called in sooner. Neither of which was done and this critical point lead to the downfall of the Republican Party. Tourgee stated in his letter, “unless these evils are speedily remedied I tell you, General the Republican Party has signed its death warrant,” he predicted correct the party had the remedy and hesitated to use and did not use it to its full potential, hence the fall of the Republican Party. This letter to Senator Joseph C. Abbott, made headlines in Washington, Tourgee called out the Republican Party, he called them to attention as well as action. His letter, his testimony and remedy, resulted in Congress passing the first Enforcement Act, which struck the Klan; it made it a felony to attempt to deprive another person of his civil or political rights as defined by the U.S. Constitution. (Tourge 2010, 47)

 Tourgee carved up a remedy that the Republican Party used, they did alter it but Trougee had the concept and the ideals behind it. While Tourgee was not a senator nor did he represent a specific county, he was a superior court justice, his witnessing to the gaps in the legal system made him full aware of what was needed to protect the citizens of the state. He had to watch as innocent lives were taken and the men who took them walked free to return their homes unscathed. He saw as the constitution, the legal and justice system, the two things his ideals were built upon failed to provide the citizens of their basic rights. Even harder for him was to see the government “sleep.” Tourgee predicted the fall of the Republican Party, after the events of the Kirk-Holden War he knew it was inevitable. After their defeat, he stayed in North Carolina, refusing to alter his belief of equal justice. He continually defended the reforms of Reconstruction as a Republican minority leader at the state Constitutional Convention of 1875.