Perhaps the closest the U. S. government has come to seriously and systematically punishing respectable white men for violence against black men was almost 150 years ago, in response to the post-Civil War Ku-Klux Klan. From 1868 through 1872, Klan groups committed thousands of assaults, hundreds of murders, numerous rapes, and substantial theft of black property.
The government was reluctant to press charges against white attackers because many people managed to convince themselves that, in fact, the violence was not happening. White southerners often denied reports of Klan attacks as false, “a phantom of a diseased imagination.” At this time, most white southerners were Democrats and most black southerners Republicans. Democratic papers took the lead in Klan denial, referring to the “so-called Klan” as a “humbug,” alleging that because black southerners, as a group, were fearful (they had a “constitutional timidity”) and dishonest, their testimony was worthless. Democrats suggested that sympathetic white Republicans were sentimentalists who failed to understand black racial limitations. When freedpeople and their white allies claimed that the Klan had threatened them or driven them from their homes, Democratic newspapers accused them of being scared by ghost stories. When bodies began to pile up, Klan-deniers claimed that the victims had actually been killed by other freedpeople disguised as Ku-Klux. Even those Republican newspapers opposed to the Klan hated to appear gullible, and often treated accounts of Klan attacks with skepticism.
The federal government and the press carefully investigated and documented Klan violence, making outright denial difficult. They hired detectives and stationed army units not only to protect freedpeople but also to gather information in Klan-ridden areas. They arrested Ku-Klux with their costumes. They gathered confessions. Congressmen formed subcommittees and personally traveled south, where they took volumes of testimony.
When they were unable to deny Klan violence outright, apologists turned to a second strategy, both emphasizing that victims were dangerous and describing poor black communities as chaotic and unpoliceable. When the Klan killed a black man, he was often characterized as a “bad negro.” Rumors of his sexual immorality or criminality circulated in his community and in the white press over the following weeks. Ku-Klux, in these accounts, were good men forced to use violence to control a black population too ignorant to respond to anything but force. Klan whippings, threats, and executions were unseemly, Klan defenders suggested, but were the only way to maintain public order and safety. Faced with evidence of white-on-black violence, Klan apologists inevitably brought countercharges of black aggression, sexual menace, and impudence.
White Republicans who shared the racist views of Democratic southerners found it difficult to dismiss these claims. Nonetheless, the federal government did use its massive accumulation of evidence to arrest a minority of Ku-Klux. The federal government focused their energy on South Carolina, arresting more than a thousand men in 1871-1872.
So a third justification for Klan violence emerged: Klan defenders insisted that, guilty or not, convicted Ku-Klux were being persecuted. Newspapers described terrified white families fleeing federal marshals. In an ironic mirror of the atrocities of the slave trade, newspapers claimed that Ku-Klux prisoners being shipped from the Carolinas to federal prison in Albany, New York had been confined “between decks” in uncomfortably hot conditions and with poor air circulation. They complained about the cleanliness of jailed Ku-Kluxes’ cells. They alleged that their rations were inadequate, and their coffee a poor imitation of the real article. These papers described Ku-Klux as “cripple[d], pale, and emaciated,” some elderly, some leaving behind dependent families, some worn down by poverty and hard work, and unfit for harsh prison conditions.
Popular sympathy for convicted Ku-Klux was striking. Even those opposed to the Klan’s violence embraced their cause. Geritt Smith, a famed abolitionist, expressed concern about the Albany Ku-Klux, personally visiting them and calling upon President Ulysses S. Grant to inquire into their conditions of imprisonment. Grant had strong political reason to appear sympathetic to Ku-Klux: his opponent in the 1872 election, Horace Greeley, positioned himself as the voice of reconciliation. While Grant’s campaign emphasized his effectiveness in suppressing the Klan, he did not want to appear unforgiving. Grant sent his head of the Secret Service, Hiram Whitley, to look into the prisoners’ conditions, and major papers reprinted Whitley’s report that he was pleasantly surprised to find the Ku-Klux prisoners “manly, frank, and communicative.” Whitley concluded that, guilty or innocent, their plight “appeal[s] strongly for mercy.”
This mercy was quickly forthcoming. Grant and his Republicans had found the will to try to stop Klan violence, but they were much less interested in seeing those who had committed this violence punished. Many of the hundreds of suspected Ku-Klux apprehended by federal officials were simply sent home. Of those who were charged, only a minority were ever tried: charges against most were dropped in 1872 and 1873. Soon after his reelection, Grant, who pitied “these wretched men,” began pardoning even that small group of Ku-Klux who had been sent to federal prison. This was a gesture of sectional reconciliation pointing at the hope that war-time divisions would be healed. It was also a gesture of a white solidarity so strong that it would not be broken again for almost a hundred years.