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Post-Civil War and today: The fight against white supremacists

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From the still smoldering ashes of the pro-slavery Confederacy there was the rise of the Ku Klux Klan which used terrorism, murder threats of violence and the cover of “states rights” to prop up the white supremacists agenda.

President Ulysses S. Grant used the Enforcement Acts, also known as the Ku Klux Klan Acts, to combat the activities of the Klan and try to protect the civil rights of African Americans during his presidency in post-Civil War America.

These acts were a series of federal laws passed in the early 1870s to address the rising violence and intimidation tactics of the KKK and other white supremacist groups in the South targeting the formerly enslaved Freemen and their white supporters. The KKK and others terrorized black citizens for exercising their right to vote, running for public office, and serving on juries.

The Enforcement Acts gave the federal government the authority to take action against individuals and groups engaged in conspiracies to deprive citizens of their civil rights. This allowed for the prosecution of Klan members and leaders involved in acts of violence, intimidation, and voter suppression.

President Grant declared martial law in several counties in South Carolina and other states where Klan activity was particularly intense. This allowed for the suspension of habeas corpus, which meant that individuals could be arrested and held without trial for their involvement in Klan-related violence.

Grant also used federal troops to enforce the law and suppress Klan activities in some areas of the South. The presence of federal troops helped maintain order and protect the rights of African Americans and other vulnerable groups.

President Grant's strong support of the Enforcement Acts had a significant impact on diminishing the power and influence of the KKK in the years following the American Civil War. However, it's important to note that the Klan's activities persisted in various forms over the years, and it was not completely eradicated during Grant's presidency or in the decades that followed. Nonetheless, the Enforcement Acts represented a significant effort to combat Klan violence and protect civil rights in the South during the Reconstruction era.

While the Force Acts temporarily helped put an end to the KKK violence and intimidation, the end of formal Reconstruction in 1877 allowed for a return of large-scale disenfranchisement of African Americans and the birth of Jim Crow.

While the Enforcement Acts were originally enacted in the 1870s to address specific challenges of the post-Civil War Reconstruction era, their principles and underlying ideas still have relevance today in protecting the ballot and civil rights.

The Enforcement Acts established the federal government's authority to intervene when state and local authorities fail to protect the civil rights of individuals. This principle remains important today, particularly in situations where state or local governments may be unwilling or unable to safeguard the rights of minority populations.

The Enforcement Acts contained provisions aimed at preventing voter intimidation and violence at the polls. This is especially relevant today as efforts to suppress voting rights and intimidate voters continue to be a concern in some areas. Federal laws, such as the Voting Rights Act of 1965, build upon the principles of the Enforcement Acts by prohibiting discriminatory voting practices and providing mechanisms for federal oversight in areas with a history of voter suppression.

The Enforcement Acts empowered the federal government to enforce voting rights and protect access to the ballot. This idea remains crucial in the modern context, as efforts to restrict voting rights or engage in voter suppression tactics still exist. Laws like the Voting Rights Act, the Help America Vote Act, and the National Voter Registration Act continue to reinforce these protections.

Fergus M. Bordewich is a historian and the author of the new book Klan War: Ulysses S. Grant and the Battle to Save Reconstruction.

He is also the author of several other books, including Congress at War: How Republican Reformers Fought the Civil War, Defied Lincoln, Ended Slavery, And Remade America, and The First Congress: How James Madison, George Washington, and a Group of Extraordinary Men Invented the Government,

He holds degrees from the City College of New York and Columbia University. In the late 1960s, he did voter registration for the NAACP in the still-segregated South; he also worked as a roustabout in Alaska's Arctic oil fields, a taxi driver in New York City, and a deckhand on a Norwegian freighter.


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*This interview will be recorded on Monday, October 9, 2023.


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David Martin Davies can be reached at dmdavies@tpr.org and on Twitter at @DavidMartinDavi