The KKK and the Democratic Party during Reconstruction

Sometimes a comment sparks a discussion for reasons the commenter might not understand.

When we look at political violence during Reconstruction, we tend to equate it with the KKK.  That’s a mistake.  There was violence directed against blacks and their white supporters in the months after the war, before the KKK was established.  The two major anti-black riots of 1866 in Memphis and New Orleans were not KKK actions.  And, after the KKK as an organization fell apart in the early 1870s, new white supremacist organizations came on the scene, with the objective of taking back control of the southern states, as the folks in Mississippi put it, “peaceably if we can, forcibly if we must.”

Chronology’s important here.  So is place.  The violence of 1865 and 1866 took place before Republicans in Washington put a plan of reconstructing civil governments in place, so the notion in some quarters that the KKK was a response to Republican policies in Washington is simply wrong.  Republican policies were a response to several issues, including the incidents of violence already mentioned.

Moreover, the KKK’s Tennessee roots reflect a rather nasty feud in the Volunteer State between supporters of secession/the Confederacy battling unionists.  By the spring of 1865 the unionists, having reestablished civil government, were led by William G. Brownlow, who took over as governor just days before Lee’s surrender.  With a civil government already in place, Tennessee was not affected by Andrew Johnson’s proclamations outlining reconstruction in seven former Confederate states.  Recall that Tennessee abolished slavery early in 1865, many months before the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment; the state ratified the Fourteenth Amendment in 1866; recall that it did not fall under the Reconstruction Acts of 1867 and 1868.  The Brownlow administration did all it could to exclude former Confederates from voting in state contests, in contrast to those governments erected under Johnson’s proclamations and other southern states where Lincoln had established wartime loyal governments (Louisiana, Virginia, and Arkansas).  The following year he did what he could to frustrate conservative forces in the state from exercising political power.  In early 1867 Brownlow called for enfranchising blacks and formed a state militia.  Thus, at the state level, the KKK in Tennessee grew in popularity as a response to the actions of the Brownlow regime.

For people such as Nathan Bedford Forrest, the KKK was indeed a postwar extension of the Confederate war effort, although it was no longer directed at independence but at regaining control of the state through violence.  Just as Tennessee unionists as well as blacks had been the target of the attack on Fort Pillow in 1864, so now were the same groups the target of KKK violence in Tennessee.  At the same time, as Reconstruction regimes were established under the Reconstruction Acts, the KKK spread, most notably into Georgia, where former Confederate general John B. Gordon played an important (if often overlooked) role.  There the organization simply continued in somewhat more organized fashion the terrorist activities of white supremacists.

By 1868 the purpose of the KKK was obvious: it was to threaten, intimidate, attack, and kill southern Republicans, whether they be white or black, native southerners or transplanted Yankees.  At a time when Republican majorities in several southern states depended on the ability of blacks to vote in large numbers for the first time in a presidential election (as well as to vote for the state legislators who would elect United States senators), it was in the interest of the Democratic party to welcome the KKK’s assistance as it sought to turn back the candidacy of Ulysses S. Grant.  After all, northern Democrats, especially those from New York, were no strangers to using violence politically, especially against black people.  That was the story of the 1863 draft riots in New York City.  Thus it made sense for northern Democratic leaders to welcome Forrest to the 1868 Democratic national convention meeting in New York.  That convention nominated as president former New York governor Horatio Seymour, who had in 1863 addressed draft rioters as “my friends,” and chose as his running mate Frank P. Blair, who had called upon Democrats to undo Reconstruction and continue the struggle.  Forrest actually pushed for the candidacy of President Johnson, a fellow Tennessean, and was rewarded later that month with a presidential pardon, which, among other things, meant that he would not be subject to prosecution for his acts during the war.  Democrats also welcomed John B. Gordon to the convention, and the Georgian spent the fall campaigning for the Seymour-Blair ticket … while he directed KKK operations.

The KKK’s objective was to overthrow the Republican regimes in the South through attacking black and white voters and officeholders.  It enjoyed some success in 1868, particularly in Georgia, where the voting results in November favored Democrats as Republican majorities from the preceding April state elections melted away or in some cases nearly vanished altogether.  As a result, Georgia underwent another round of restructuring civil government under the Reconstruction Acts.  Violence played a role in the elections in other states as well: President Johnson, dreading the election of Grant, would not use federal force to protect Republican voters.  Ironically, the effort went for naught.  Grant won the election, and would have prevailed even had he not carried a single southern state.  His popular majority, however, was made possible by the votes of African Americans who were casting ballots in a presidential election as for the first time.

Events in Tennessee, however, soon turned Forrest’s way.  Brownlow decided to become a United States senator in 1869, and his replacement as governor, DeWitt Senter, was far more inclined to conciliate conservatives and former Confederates than was his predecessor.  Perhaps sensing this shift in the political winds, Forrest had issued an order directing Klansmen to destroy their disguises and temper their behavior.  At times people have claimed that this directive disbanded the KKK, but that is not true.  What is true is that in the following August conservative forces regained control of Tennessee.  Forrest turned to other activities, while the KKK persisted in states still under Republican control, including North and South Carolina.  During the 1870s the KKK collapsed, but, as noted before, other terrorist organizations took their place, each a paramilitary arm of the Democratic party, both locally and nationally.

Many people make the mistake of blurring the definitions of northern and Republican when discussing issues of politics and race during the American Civil War era.  This is a serious mistake, badly distorting our understanding of the political and social dynamics of the time.  The North was divided on issues of race and politics, and the Democrats remained an important part of that story.  They battled Republican efforts on behalf of black equality in the North and welcomed the assistance of white supremacist terrorists in their efforts to regain political power on the national level.  Thwarted in 1868, the party enjoyed success in 1874, when the offyear elections gave control of the House of Representatives to the Democrats and effectively ended legislative efforts to protect blacks and their white allies from violence.

Thus political terrorism is not simply a southern story, and it most assuredly is not simply the story of the KKK: it is the story of a far larger movement that benefited the interests of the Democratic party nationally.

7 thoughts on “The KKK and the Democratic Party during Reconstruction

  1. James F. Epperson February 18, 2011 / 5:33 am

    Very informative, Brooks. As the saying goes, “the devil is in the details.” Thanks much.

  2. Charles Lovejoy February 18, 2011 / 10:03 am

    This article is a” print out” and a ” keeper” . Probably covers more information than a lot of books on the subject. Thanks

  3. Charles Lovejoy February 18, 2011 / 1:00 pm

    And sometimes comments are made to start a discussion in a broader sense , or jump start a discussion 🙂

  4. scott smart February 18, 2011 / 1:18 pm

    I enjoyed Rable”s “But There Was No Peace”.

  5. Arleigh Birchler February 18, 2011 / 1:24 pm

    Thanks for this post. I learned more detail about the issues involved.

  6. Roger E Watson February 18, 2011 / 2:48 pm

    As Mr. Lovejoy said, this is a “keeper” ! (As just about all of Dr. Simpson’s posts are, at least for me.)

  7. Mark February 20, 2011 / 5:06 pm

    Wow I like hard hitting, no-nonsense histories about this era. This was one of your best. What a delight to read!

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