' Skip To Content
Reconstruction: The Second Civil War | Article

White Southern Responses to Black Emancipation

View of laborers preparing cotton for gins, on Alex. Knox's plantation, Mount Pleasant, near Charleston, S.C. 1874. Library of Congress

Historians describe white Southerners' varied responses to emancipation and the issue of civil rights, and describe the thinking that gave rise to white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan during Reconstruction.

How did Southern resistance to black freedom play out after the Civil War?

Reconstruction FAUST.jpg
Drew Gilpin Faust

Drew Gilpin Faust: Mary Lee of Winchester [Virginia] says at the end of the war, "Political reconstruction is inevitable now, but social reconstruction, we have in our hands and we can prevent." And I think that's such an extraordinary insight on her part, and so predictive of much of what happens in the months and years that follow her remark. I think what she means is that Congress is going to do certain things, but there's almost a kind of guerrilla warfare of the domestic, of the local, of people just refusing to let society change in the ways that the architects of freedom in the North might hope for, in the ways that the slaves, the freed slaves, might themselves within the South hope for.

[Southerners] have all kinds of ways of drawing lines and resisting the egalitarian impulses of freedom, the assumptions of the former slaves, just setting up roadblocks... in every way they can imagine, to change in their society. And in some ways one might say the South succeeded in this, and the women of the South succeeded in this, well into the 20th century, and with inventing new kinds of ways of limiting freedom, and then of course the legal ways that the South itself finds to change the nature of freedom in society, to resist the changes implicit in emancipation.

What did Southern whites think about sharing political power with their former slaves?

Reconstruction FONER.jpg
Eric Foner

Eric Foner: Southern whites were very divided in 1867. Some of them said, "We've got to go out. We've got to mobilize ourselves. We've got to go out and out-vote these people." Most Southern states had white majorities. So even if all blacks voted, if the whites could unite against them, they could still keep control. In other places they said, "No, this is a travesty of democracy. We're just going to boycott. We're going to have nothing to do with it. Let them go ahead and they'll do all sorts of crazy things, and they'll discredit themselves." And then there were some white Southern leaders who said, "Well, we've got to go out and appeal to them. We've got to get them to vote for us. They don't have to vote Republican." And some of them actually went and gave speeches to black gatherings, and basically said, "Look, we were masters... You understand how good slavery was. You should vote for us." But those speeches didn't seem to get a lot of support. So there was a lot of uncertainty and political division within the white population in 1867, about how to respond to this completely new situation.

What was the Ku Klux Klan?

Reconstruction WALKER.jpg
Clarence Walker

Clarence Walker: The Ku Klux Klan... is an original American terrorist organization. And it is through its violence and the violence of a number of its cohort organizations that the Reconstruction process was undermined and overthrown in 1877 in the South.

Were blacks the Klan's only targets?

Eric Foner: The Klan is also directed against whites, in some ways. White Southern Republicans are also victims of the Klan. Northerner carpetbaggers -- as they call them -- who come down, become victims of the Klan... Part of the appeal is: Okay, if there is going to be a race war, so to speak, or race violence, then all whites must unite. Those whites who have been with the Republicans are traitors. They're traitors to the race. They're traitors to the region. And all whites must now unite in opposition to this Republican government. If you stay with the Republicans, you are opening yourself up to being a victim of violence.

The Klan is really an organization that wants to turn the clock back to the point before African Americans gained the right to vote, gained their civil rights, created this kind of community infrastructure, mobilization, Republican parties, Union Leagues, black militia units, schools. They want to go back as far as they can to the point where African Americans are a subordinate group, laboring as workers on the plantation, but that's pretty much it. And their targets reflect that all across the board.

What kind of thinking lay behind Klan actions?

Drew Gilpin Faust: White Southerners thought they were superior to the North. They were a culture that was able, because of its leisure -- leisure provided by the labor of slaves to those in the upper echelons of society -- to pursue the life of the mind, to contemplate politics, to be a statesman, to move beyond the fray of everyday life and to sit back and consider it in ways that made you superior to those who were simply enmeshed in life's daily struggles.

Many white Southerners say they assume that slaves want to be slaves; that because they are seen by these white Southerners as inferior beings, one of the aspects of superiority they don't have is a desire for independence. Now this is white Southerners deluding themselves, I think, to feel better about the slave institution: "If these people don't really want freedom, then we don't have to feel so bad that we have denied it to them."

Why didn't other Southern whites take a stand against the violence?

Clarence Walker:The tide, in terms of white society, was running in the direction of what we would later call the "solid South." Even if you were not political, and even if you were not officially affiliated with the Republican Party, you would have been pressured in some way or the other to be silent, or to turn your head the other way at what was going on. ...A sector of this populace is expressing its point of view, and expressing it in the most violent and physical way, to re-establish white supremacy. And nothing will be tolerated. Nothing will be allowed to stand in its way, and nothing will be tolerated in this instance.

...Any association with blackness was deemed to be socially unacceptable in Southern society; that to be associated with black people, and to be associated with them politically, was enough to have you declared a "race traitor" or a "nigger lover;" and that this was a very powerful psychological threat that could be mobilized against people who made any effort to ally themselves with black people.

Did specific threats give rise to white supremacist groups?

Drew Gilpin Faust: What turns the world most decidedly upside down for white Southerners is to take a group of people who were forbidden to bear arms, who were defined as subservient, who were forced to be subordinate, and then to put them in a position of control and to give them arms. And I think there's a certain sense of fear of retribution here, though it's often not expressed. "What are they going to do to me, given what we have done to them?" This is never said in an overt way. And yet for a class of people that have beaten and whipped slaves into submission, to think, "Well, what happens when we give them the instruments of power?"

Part of the logic of the social order of the old South was that white women are subordinate because white men protect them. What are they protecting them from? In one set of letters that I read, there was a reference to the "harrow of harrows." I think there's a certain sexual fear here, that white men are protecting white women in their purity from assaults by anybody who might assault them, but there's a particular fear, I think, of sexual violation, sexual assault, violence from the slave population. And so when the white men leave -- which 3 out of 4 white men of military age do during the Civil War -- white women are left, as one wrote to Jefferson Davis, "unprotected and afraid." The notion that protection is gone is key to white women's perceptions of themselves.

How did groups like the Klan justify their violent acts?

Eric Foner: The Klan claims that it is trying to restore order in what they consider as chaos caused by blacks. They justify their actions often, as would happen later with lynchings -- the victim is then accused retrospectively of being a rapist or something like that. But this is obviously absurd. I mean, the Klan -- To use a modern terminology, which unfortunately is quite appropriate, this is a terrorist organization. It's a homegrown American terrorism. And by the way, they probably killed more Americans than Osama Bin Laden did. And they use all sorts of justifications. And the appalling thing actually is both the degree of violence, the atrocities committed, but also the way in which white public opinion in the South extenuates it...

Many whites do not approve of this kind of violence, but they will make excuses for it. They will say, "Well, these guys are maybe getting a little extreme, but actually of course it's true that we've got to get rid of this black civil rights and political rights and things like that." The people who refuse to testify against others who commit acts of violence, there -- it shows a certain kind of white public opinion in the South which makes it very difficult to maintain law and order in that society.

How could such violence happen unchecked?

Eric Foner: The new Reconstruction governments were quite weak. They did try to raise militia units. In some states like North Carolina, Texas, Arkansas, the militia was fairly effective against the Klan. But in states with large black majorities.... most African Americans, despite the fact you'd had those soldiers in the Civil War, had no military experience, no military training. Most whites in the South were armed and had served in militia or slave patrols, things like that. The governors were fearful of using the militias against the Klan because they thought they might spark off a kind of generalized racial conflagration.

So it basically fell to the federal government to try to impose order, which eventually President [Ulysses] Grant does... Grant comes in saying, "Let us have peace," and he's not anxious to use the army. No general is ever anxious to use the army as a sort of policing force. That's not what it's trained for. But as the reports of violence spread, as Republicans in the South more and more are appealing for help, as atrocities are committed, Congress sets up two committees, House and Senate, to investigate the Klan. Their testimony in 1870-71 really reveals to the country the extent of these kinds of atrocities and terrorism in the South, and it creates a political pressure for Grant to do something.

Moreover, the election of 1872 is coming up. And even for partisan reasons, you can't just let your electorate get intimidated so that it can't vote. These are Republican voters. You can't just let them be eliminated by violence from the political equation.

So, you know, more and more Republicans in Congress are pressing Grant to do something. Even those who are quite moderate are saying, you know, "This is like a new civil war. We cannot let the results of the civil war be abrogated by a new outbreak of violence." And so finally Grant does act very decisively in 1872, and does succeed in basically crushing this violence for a while.

Amos Ackerman is the attorney general under Grant when the effort against the Klan really reaches its full extent... He's a Republican from Georgia. He's appalled by the atrocities that are taking place. He really feels it's a sign of some kind of pathology in Southern white civilization, that all these murders and attacks can be taking place with no particular response from the white community. And Ackerman really orchestrates the use of federal marshals against the Klan and the trials. Klansmen, particularly in South Carolina, are arrested and put on trial in federal court for their crimes, and many of them are put in jail.

Ackerman is a guy who had been born in the North, had moved to the South before the Civil War, become very Southern [and fought] with the Confederacy -- so he was a bona fide Southerner -- but then joins the Republican Party after the Civil War and becomes very outraged by the Klan's activities.

What was the ultimate result of the Klan trials?

Eric Foner: Some people consider the trials not that successful because most members of the Klan are not put on trial. What the government's strategy is, is to let the lower-ranking people off if they will testify against the upper ones. But quite a few Klan leaders just flee the South. Some of them are put in jail. But in its ultimate purpose... the campaign is successful because the Klan really disbands in 1872. And the violence diminishes enormously. And the election of 1872 is probably the most peaceful election in the whole Reconstruction period. So at least for a while, this strategy of using troops, having trials, and targeting the leaders and not every Klansman, seems to have paid off.

Among other things, the Klan trials reveal the great expansion of the jurisdiction of the federal courts during Reconstruction. You know, the federal government could intervene, it could send troops, but you can't do that permanently. They don't have the bureaucracy at that time. There's no Civil Rights Commission. There's no Federal Bureau of Investigation. The Department of Justice is just created during Reconstruction, very small. There's very few federal marshals, anything like that. The federal courts are given tremendous authority to try to prosecute crimes against citizens -- which can be effective but is not really the best way of suppressing crime. But in the Klan trials, it does seem to work for a time, using the federal courts as the weapon against the Klan.

Southern whites see this as just another example of Northern tyranny. They don't accept the legitimacy of the Reconstruction governments to begin with. They think they're just imposed by the North. And the Klan trials and federal courts, and trying people in federal court -- not local state court -- is just more grist for the Democrats' mill of how the rights of the South are being trampled on.

Support Provided by: Learn More