On April 20, 1871, Grant returned victorious to Capitol Hill to sign the third Enforcement Act, commonly known as the Ku Klux Klan Act. He had planned a California trip that spring, but canceled it in the belief that he couldn’t sidestep this historic moment. The strong new measure laid down criminal penalties for depriving citizens of their rights under the Fourteenth Amendment, including holding office, sitting on a jury, or casting a vote. The federal government could prosecute such cases when state governments refused to act. The law also endowed Grant with extraordinary powers to suspend habeas corpus, declare martial law, and send in troops. To halt night riders, the act made it illegal “to conspire together, or go in disguise upon the public highway . . . for the purpose . . . of depriving any person . . . of equal protection of the law.” However loathed in the South, the law stood as a magnificent achievement for Grant, who had initiated and rallied support for it, never wavering. To further strengthen it, he issued General Orders No. 48, allowing federal troops to arrest violators of the Ku Klux Klan Act and break up and disperse “bands of disguised marauders.”
The man who implemented this bold agenda was Akerman, who thought Reconstruction best served the long-term interests of the enlightened South, properly understood. To those who protested its severity, he responded that nothing was “more idle than to attempt to conciliate by kindness that portion of the Southern people who are still malcontent. They take all kindness on the part of the Government as evidence of timidity.” For Akerman, the Klan’s actions “amount to war, and cannot be effectually crushed on any theory.” The metaphor didn’t seem excessive, for the Klan resisted by force any effort to restrain it, reflected in Nathan Bedford Forrest’s bloodthirsty injunction to his followers: “If they send the black men to hunt those confederate soldiers whom they call kuklux, then I say to you, ‘Go out and shoot the radicals.’”
On May 3, Grant issued a proclamation containing a ringing defense of the Ku Klux Klan Act, calling it a “law of extraordinary public importance.” Never mentioning the Klan by name, he alluded to “combinations of lawless and disaffected persons.” To those who bridled at the enhanced use of federal power, denounced “bayonet rule,” and brandished the states’ rights banner, he implored them to use local laws to suppress the Klan and obviate the need for federal troops. If that didn’t happen, the inaction of local communities “imposes upon the National Government the duty of putting forth all its energies for the protection of its citizens of every race and color.” If states abdicated responsibility, Grant was prepared to use the full panoply of federal power in response. At the same time, he issued orders to federal troops in South Carolina and Mississippi “to arrest disguised night marauders and break up their bands.” In countering the Klan, Grant found himself back in familiar territory, operating as general in chief. Whenever he returned to war-related issues, Grant showed a sure grasp of both his values and methods. He knew that the Klan threatened to unravel everything he and Lincoln and Union soldiers had accomplished at great cost in blood and treasure.
When a joint congressional committee traveled to South Carolina to gather testimony on the Klan rebellion, many of the witnesses were threatened. They made it abundantly clear that the Klan’s word was law in many counties. As one witness from Union County testified, “The county was in effect under Ku-Klux rule; that no order issued by the Klan would be disregarded.” Grant received the same message from petrified citizens, such as Javan Bryant of Spartanburg County, who assured Grant that “it is a common thing for men to say in the country that they will kill anybody who reports them as Ku Klux.”
To aid the anti-Klan effort, Akerman fielded a vast array of resources, including federal marshals and attorneys of the brand-new Justice Department. Members of the nascent Secret Service pitched in with undercover detective work. On September 12, Akerman left for South Carolina to take personal supervision of the campaign, Grant placing federal troops at his disposal. The following month, Akerman sent him a sobering report on Klan activity in South Carolina that portrayed the Klan not as bands of isolated, wild-eyed ruffians but as a comprehensive movement that spanned the entire white community. It embraced “at least two thirds of the active white men of those counties, and have the sympathy and countenance of a majority of the other third. They are connected with similar combinations in other counties and States, and no doubt are part of a grand system of criminal associations pervading most of the Southern States.” Bound by secret oaths, Klansmen perjured themselves to escape prosecution and terrorized witnesses and juries. Akerman estimated that the Klan had committed thousands of criminal acts during the previous year.
On October 12, the anti-Klan assault entered a new phase when Grant, at Akerman’s bidding, issued a proclamation calling upon “combinations and conspiracies” in nine South Carolina counties to disperse and retire peacefully to their homes within five days. Five days later, when the groups did not disarm, Grant suspended habeas corpus there. Akerman explained to Grant the legal rationale for doing so: it was impossible to prosecute Klan members if witnesses dreaded reprisals. With habeas corpus suspended, those threatening reprisals could be held in custody long enough to protect witnesses and obtain convictions. Akerman greeted Grant’s move, saying blacks can “sleep at home now.” By late November, he informed the cabinet that he had taken two thousand prisoners in South Carolina for violating the Ku Klux Klan Act.
Under Akerman’s inspired leadership, federal grand juries, many interracial, brought 3,384 indictments against the KKK, resulting in 1,143 convictions. The conviction rate was even better than it sounded. The federal court system was burdened with cases and many federal judges, appointed before Grant, didn’t sympathize with the anti-Klan crusade. Furthermore, the act that created the Department of Justice had reduced the federal legal staff by a third and curbed its ability to hire outside lawyers as needed. With witnesses offered protection, Klansmen began to name other Klansmen, stripping off the secret veil that cloaked their activities. Many Klansmen, facing arrest, fled their states. Several hundred pleaded guilty in exchange for suspended or lenient sentences. Sixty-five Klansmen wound up in the federal penitentiary in Albany, New York. The goal was not mass incarceration but restoring law and order. To his district attorneys, Akerman made plain that more than convictions were at stake: “If you cannot convict, you, at least, can expose, and ultimately such exposures will make the community ashamed of shielding the crime.”
12 May 2019
Pres. Grant vs. the Ku Klux Klan
From Grant, by Ron Chernow (Penguin, 2018), Kindle pp. 706-708: