Ulysses Grant’s Fight Against the KKK

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

This is another article excerpted from my Civil War and Gettysburg texts, this dealing with the fight against the Ku Klux Klan and other racist terrorist groups operating in the South. Unlike his predecessor, Andre Johnson, Ulysses S. Grant believed in freedom and equality for African Americans and was willing to use to the military and police power of the Federal Government to crush violent terrorist groups. In the end his effort failed, however among U.S. Presidents after Abraham Lincoln, Grant was most committed to ending racism and promoting equality in the United States.

Sadly, while the Klan and other groups like operate only on the margins of society, only popping up for Confederate Flag rallies, a protest here or there and of course the occasional mass killing; there are millions of others who harbor many of the same attitudes held by the Klan against African Americans, other minority groups, immigrants, and non-Christian religions. These people just maintain a tidier act. They wear expensive suits, Hang out with presidential candidates and popular preachers. They get interviewed on cable news to spread fear and loathing of those that they hate, and then capitalizing on that fear they use political action and the courts to push their agenda. Interestingly enough these well to do hatemongers almost never criticize or condemn the attitudes and action of Klan members or other white supremacists. If they do they brush it off as an “isolated” incident unconnected to their own ideology. 

The fact is they don’t condemn them because they share the same goal; a racially pure white supposedly Christian country. That my friends is why this still matters and why I admire that great General and far too under appreciated, President, Ulysses S Grant.

Have a great and thoughtful day,

Peace

Padre Steve+

ulysses-s-grant-book

President Ulysses S. Grant

The passage of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments provoked even more violence from enraged Southerners. Thousands of Southerners, many former Confederate soldiers, formed a variety of violent racist organizations which turned the violence from sporadic attacks to what amounted to a full-fledged insurgency against the new Reconstructionist state governments and African Americans. Organizations like the Ku Klux Klan which engaged in terroristic violence while heavily armed so called  “social clubs” that operated under the aegis of the state Democratic Party leadership in most Southern states did the same. Under the leadership of former Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest whose troops had conducted the Fort Pillow massacre, the Klan’s membership throughout the South “was estimated at five hundred thousand” [1] and the majority were former Confederate soldiers. As the shadowy organization grew it became bolder and more violent in its attacks on African Americans, Republican members of the Reconstruction governments, and even Southern Jews.

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Early KKK Gathering

Allegedly organized for self-defense against state militia units composed of freed blacks they named themselves “White Leagues (Louisiana), White Liners or Rifle Clubs (Mississippi), or Red Shirts (South Carolina). They were, in fact, paramilitary organizations that functioned as armed auxiliaries of the Democratic Party in southern states in their drive to “redeem” the South from “black and tan Negro-Carpetbag rule.” [2] These men, mostly Confederate veterans “rode roughshod over the South, terrorizing newly freed slaves, their carpetbagger allies, and anyone who dared to imagine a biracial democracy as the war’s change.” [3] This unrequited violence and hatred set the stage for the continued persecution, murder and violence against blacks and those who supported their efforts to achieve equality in the South for the next century.

Throughout his term in office Johnson appealed to arguments used throughout later American history by “critics of civil rights legislation and affirmative action. He appealed to fiscal conservatism, raised the specter of an immense federal bureaucracy trampling on citizens’ rights, and insisted that self-help, not government handouts, was the path to individual advancement.” [4]

black-voter-threatening

White League Members Intimidating Blacks at the Polls

Ulysses S. Grant succeeded Johnson as President in 1869. “For Grant, freedom and equal rights were matters of principle, not symbolism.” [5] Grant used his political capital to fight for the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment which gave black men the right to vote. It was one of the things that he remained most proud of in his life, he noted, “A measure which makes at once four million people voter who were heretofore declared by the highest tribunal in the land to be not citizens of the United States, nor eligible to become so…is indeed a measure of grander importance than any other act of the kind from the foundation of our free government to the present day.” [6] Grant ordered his generals in the South to enforce the Reconstruction Act and when the Ku Klux Klan attempted to stop blacks from voting Grant got Congress to pass the “enforcement Act, which made racist terrorism a federal offense.” [7] He created the Justice Department to deal with crimes against Federal law and in 1871 pushed Congress to pass a law known as the Ku Klux Klan Act and sent in the army and federal agents to enforce the law.

KKK-Nast

White League and KKK Poster

Grant’s efforts using the military as well as agents of the Justice Department and the Secret Service against the Klan were hugely successful, thousands were arrested, hundreds of Klansmen were convicted and others were either driven underground or disbanded their groups. The 1872 election, was the first and last in which blacks were nearly unencumbered as they voted until the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act.

However, Grant’s actions triggered a political backlash which doomed reconstruction. The seminal moment in this came 1873 when General Philip Sheridan working in Louisiana, asked Grant for “permission to arrest leaders of the White League and try them by courts-martial” [8] for their violent acts against blacks and their seizure of the New Orleans City Hall in a brazen coup attempt. The leak of Sheridan’s request sparked outrage and even northern papers condemned the president’s actions in the harshest of terms.

Apart from the effort to support voting rights for African Americans Grant’s efforts at Reconstruction were met mostly by failure. Part of this was due to a weariness on the part of many Northerners to continue to invest any more effort into the effort. Slowly even proponents of Reconstruction began to retreat from it, some like Carl Schurz were afraid that the use of the military against the Klan in the South could set precedent to use it elsewhere. Others, embraced an understanding of Social Darwinism which stood against all types of government interference what they called the “natural” workings of society, especially misguided efforts to uplift those at the bottom of the social order…and African Americans were consigned by nature to occupy the lowest rungs of the social ladder.” [9]

Southerners knew that they were winning the political battle and continued their pressure in Congress and in the media to demonize supporters of Reconstruction as well as African Americans. Southerners worked to rig the political and judicial process through the use of terror to demoralize and drive from power anyone, black or white, who supported Reconstruction. By 1870 every former Confederate state had been readmitted to the Union, in a sense fulfilling a part Lincoln’s war policy, but at the same time denying what the war was waged for.

To be continued….

Notes

[1] Ibid. Lane The Day Freedom Died p.230

[2] Ibid. McPherson The War that Forged a Nation p. 178

[3] Ibid. Jordan Marching Home p.118

[4] Ibid. Foner Forever Free p.116

[5] Ibid. Lane The Day Freedom Died: p.2

[6] Flood, Charles Bracelen, Grant’s Final Victory: Ulysses S. Grant’s Heroic Last Year DaCapo Press, Boston 2011 pp.78-79

[7] Ibid. Lane The Day Freedom Died p.4

[8] Ibid. Langguth, A.J. After Lincoln p.314

[9] Ibid. Foner Forever Free pp.192-193

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3 Comments

Filed under civil rights, civil war, History, Political Commentary

3 responses to “Ulysses Grant’s Fight Against the KKK

  1. Mike Solomons

    No one can pin the actions of one or some on others without disservice to the whole. Explaining away sin by assigning it to a certain group takes away personal responsibility and choice. Right and wrong are not relatively exclusive of God’s word… and we are responsible for our OWN actions…

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