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By the spring of 1865, the confederate forces had conceded their cause to secede from the union. The Union’s victory meant an end to an era in the south, it abolished slavery and had upended southern society completely. The once prosperous south was now reduced to rubble, impressive cities like Charleston and Richmond were devastated by the war, and their economy was crippled by inflation and an unproductive agriculture. In this turmoil, newly freed slaves had the especially difficult task of finding their place in society and many white southerners were worried about the implications that their freedom would have on them, so the Ku Klux Klan was formed. Terrorist groups like the Klan were able to thrive in the south because of the turmoil that resulted from the war, the south was in disarray and the outrage of emancipation made blacks targets.
In 1868, the Ku Klux Klan made it clear that their purpose was to prevent free blacks from exercising their rights and to combat the new social structure that had emerged. During a South Carolina election campaign, they demonstrated they wouldn’t tolerate blacks voting and they ended up killing eight black men, two of which were congressmen. From 1870 to 1871 the Klan’s activities were especially alarming, they meant to “oppose negro rule, bayonets… and lawmakers”. During this, 9 month period in South Carolina six murders were blamed on the Klan and whippings and beatings could have numbered in the hundreds.
As the Ku Klux Klan’s actions were becoming more heinous and frequent the federal government needed a way to protect citizen’s constitutional rights. Initially, the enforcement act was passed to prevent their rights from being violated, but it proved to be inefficient in doing this. Congress later passed a much stronger act, the Ku Klux act was aimed at people who conspire to deprive citizens of their legal rights. This act would allow for president Grant to declare an area under martial law and to suspend habeas corpus, but throughout the nation people argued for and against this bill. Democrats argued that the bill gave powers to the president that were tyrannical and unconstitutional, but Republicans like Robert B. Elliot argued that since citizens were being denied a republican form of government they needed to take action to guarantee that to them.
In South Carolina, Klan violence had forced refugees, both white and black, to hide in the woods from Klan attacks. The situation had become so dire that it was publicized by the New York times, and Attorney General Akerman urged president Grant to use forceful action to put an end to this crisis. Eventually, Grant was convinced to take decisive action by warning the Klan to disarm within 5 days, but to no avail. After the 5 days Grant suspended habeas corpus and Akerman began to assemble a list of possible Klansmen, his strategy was to hit several towns suddenly and simultaneously, while backed up by the 7th cavalry. Akerman and Grant’s strategy was meant to instill a panic throughout the Klan and it was extremely successful, within 10 days of the proclamation 100 arrests were made, and by the end of November 600 arrests were made.
The first person to be put on trial in the Ku Klux court cases was Robert Hayes Mitchell. Mitchell was an ordinary farmer, a subordinate of the Klan, but he provided an important testimony to the federal government detailing the inner workings of the Klan and its crimes. The case also revealed an elaborate series of signs and passwords used by the Klan to maintain secrecy and identify each other, as well as the Klan’s constitution and its deadly oath of secrecy. Another count of conspiracy against Mitchell dealt with the assault against a black man and his family, in the end, defense attorney Reverdy Johnson could not dispute the charges of Klan violence and declared that they were “… brutes, insensible to the obligations of humanity and religion.”
Throughout 1872, Klan arrests continued to be issued in South Carolina, but it appeared as though the government’s war against the Klan was coming to an end. Funding for the ongoing Klan prosecutions was lacking and in January 1872 Attorney General Akerman resigned from his position. Akerman’s successor was less concerned with the Klan violence, even when a federal marshal was murdered and a prosecution witness had his throat slit. That same year, Congress decided to restore habeas corpus, which hindered the authorities’ ability to detain and prosecute suspected Klan members. By August, convicted Ku Kluxers began to be pardoned, and the war came to an end when in 1877, Rutherford B. Hayes ordered the end of reconstruction.
The government’s decision to suspend habeas corpus in South Carolina was a controversial issue at the time. Some people argued that suspending habeas corpus was a tyrannical decision, but I believe that it was necessary to bring an end to the Klan’s terrorist behavior. By suspending habeas corpus the government could imprison suspected Klan members more efficiently and help protect the rights of those who they terrorized. In 1876, the supreme court reached the decision that the Ku Klux Act was unconstitutional and that it had unjustly superseded states’ rights. Although the supreme court reached this decision suspending habeas corpus was necessary to guarantee Blacks and any others whom the Klan terrorized, with a republican form of government.
Although they take place in disparate settings the 1871 war on terror against the KKK and the current war against Al-Qaeda share some similarities. They are similar in that the terrorists’ main objective was to terrorize the enemies of their ideologies; white southern supremacists wanted to terrorize blacks and their sympathizers while Al-Qaeda terrorizes enemies of their version of radical Islam. Both groups also came to prominence after great turmoil rocked their respective regions; in the south, the KKK was created after the American civil war, and Al-Qaeda formed following a war against Russia. These regions were devastated following the wars and extremism was able to grow in its ruins, and in response, the American government took drastic measures to fight against both terrorist groups. Grant suspended Habeus corpus to bring an end to the KKK’s reign of terror and the US invaded Iraq partly to combat terrorist organizations.
In Summary, the end of the civil war left the south in shambles and southerners now had to deal with the fact that blacks were now free and could advance in society. The outrage of this truth led southerners to take action against freed blacks and take whatever steps necessary to keep them subservient. The Ku Klux Klan was a terrorist organization that formed in response, and their purpose was to terrorize freed blacks and anyone who opposed their racist ideologies. For a time the Klan acted without opposition they murdered, beat, and whipped people in the south, but a public outcry against these terrorists forced the government to act.
It was Grant’s administration that was tasked with combating terrorism, which the KKK had propagated in the south. Klan activity occurred all throughout the south, but in South Carolina, it was especially violent. Congressmen and ordinary citizens were murdered during the KKK’s reign of terror, they were disguised for their own protection, but that didn’t stop Grant’s administration from ascertaining their identities. Grant later suspended habeas corpus in counties suspected of harboring Klan members, and eventually, hundreds of Klan members were arrested and convicted for their crimes. Although these were significant actions, racism wasn’t eradicated, but it struck fear into southerners who would dare to terrorize others.
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