From Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The period following the American Civil War was a time of racial and political violence in the states of the former Confederacy. During the Reconstruction era, the United States was divided largely along party lines as to how to address the significant social changes that were occurring in the South following the abolition of slavery. Radical Republicans called for punitive measures against former Confederate rebels and demanded voting rights for black men, whereas Democrats strongly opposed civil rights for former slaves and federal intervention in the Southern states. Federal troops were stationed throughout the South to enforce the rights of newly emancipated slaves to vote and own property, and many of the former Confederate states elected biracial Republican legislatures and established schools, transportation networks, and civil assistance organizations for freed slaves. Confederate soldiers, disenfranchised, armed, and eager to restore white supremacy, took advantage of the postwar chaos to threaten and intimidate black citizens. Republicans, white and black, were the particular targets of gangs that used violence to deprive newly enfranchised Southern black citizens of their rights. These gangs attacked black men and women as well as white “carpet-baggers,” who were assumed to be outsiders aiding the former slaves' cause and undermining traditional Southern society. In his memoir, John Patterson Green, a black man born in South Carolina but raised in Ohio, recalls witnessing the activities of the most notorious of these gangs, the Ku Klux Klan, upon his return to South Carolina in 1870.

Summary Overview

The period following the American Civil War was a time of racial and political violence in the states of the former Confederacy. During the Reconstruction era, the United States was divided largely along party lines as to how to address the significant social changes that were occurring in the South following the abolition of slavery. Radical Republicans called for punitive measures against former Confederate rebels and demanded voting rights for black men, whereas Democrats strongly opposed civil rights for former slaves and federal intervention in the Southern states. Federal troops were stationed throughout the South to enforce the rights of newly emancipated slaves to vote and own property, and many of the former Confederate states elected biracial Republican legislatures and established schools, transportation networks, and civil assistance organizations for freed slaves. Confederate soldiers, disenfranchised, armed, and eager to restore white supremacy, took advantage of the postwar chaos to threaten and intimidate black citizens. Republicans, white and black, were the particular targets of gangs that used violence to deprive newly enfranchised Southern black citizens of their rights. These gangs attacked black men and women as well as white “carpet-baggers,” who were assumed to be outsiders aiding the former slaves' cause and undermining traditional Southern society. In his memoir, John Patterson Green, a black man born in South Carolina but raised in Ohio, recalls witnessing the activities of the most notorious of these gangs, the Ku Klux Klan, upon his return to South Carolina in 1870.

Defining Moment

President Abraham Lincoln, a moderate Republican, and his successor, Andrew Johnson, a Democrat, encouraged a conciliatory approach to the former Confederate states following the end of the Civil War. They returned seized property to its former owners and allowed Southern states to elect their own representatives. After the Radical Republicans gained control of Congress in a landslide victory in 1866, however, federal troops were stationed the former Confederacy to enforce the rights of black citizens, and many former Confederate officers were no longer allowed to hold office, prompting widespread outrage across the South. The army supervised elections at which free black men could now vote, and Republican governments overtook the South. Coalitions of blacks, Northern Republicans, and their Southern sympathizers canvassed the South, registering black men to vote and setting up polling stations and schools.

In retaliation for what many former Confederates saw as an unjust, corrupt, outside influence in their political process and an unnatural commingling of the races, armed groups began terrorizing anyone thought to support the Republicans. The most notorious of these groups, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), was founded in 1865 by Confederate veterans and quickly spread throughout the South. The KKK used violence and threats to discourage black men from voting and to attempt to return them to their former subservient position. They drove out white politicians, teachers, and clergy who worked with the black population. Though the KKK was highly unorganized during this time, its membership grew rapidly until reports of its violent and disruptive activities resulted in the passage of the Enforcement Acts in 1870 and 1871, a series of laws that allowed federal intervention in states that did not ensure the equal treatment of all people under the law, which effectively drove the KKK underground. Other paramilitary groups were active in the South during this time, but none had the local and regional support enjoyed by the Klan.

When John Patterson Green graduated from law school and moved to South Carolina in 1870, he witnessed the activities of the Ku Klux Klan firsthand. Green was a skilled orator, and he commented at length on the rationale of many Southerners, who resented the cultural and ideological changes that had transpired with the abolition of slavery. It was this resentment and their refusal to let go of their “preconceived prejudices” that brought about the violence that Green saw perpetrated by the KKK and other white supremacist groups throughout South Carolina.

Author Biography

John Patterson Green was born in 1845 to free black parents in New Bern, North Carolina. His family moved to Cleveland, Ohio, in 1857 after the death of his father. Though never enslaved, Green's family was poor, and he struggled to complete his education, finally graduating at the age of twenty-four. In 1869, he began to study law, and in 1870 he passed the bar in South Carolina, where he lived for two years before deciding to return to Ohio. He enjoyed a successful political career in Cleveland, serving as a justice of the peace and later becoming the first black man to win election to the Ohio state senate, where he served one term.

Green published several books and articles throughout his career, beginning with a self-published collection of essays when he was still in secondary school. He died in Cleveland in 1940.

Document Analysis

This passage, taken from Green's memoir Recollections of the Inhabitants, Localities, Superstitions, and Ku Klux Outrages of the Carolinas (1880), provides examples of the violence inflicted on black Southerners and their white sympathizers by armed paramilitary groups eager to restore white supremacy in the former Confederacy, and of the determination of black men to retain and enforce their rights in the face of this intimidation. Green emphasized his unique perspective as a Southern-born black man who had returned to the South as an adult, making him both an insider and a self-proclaimed “carpet-bagger.”

Green first witnessed Klan violence when passing the charred remains of a house. When he asked his companions what had happened, they replied “that is the work of the Ku-Klux-Klan.” The man who had lived in the house, a “Yankee” Republican who had been nominated for an important office, had been warned to leave and, when he failed to do so, was tarred and feathered and run out of town. His house and all his belongings were then burned. Green identifies the KKK as a “thoroughly organized association,” whose grievances were based not upon their perceived suffering at the hands of the Republican government but “upon an imagined violence done to ‘all their preconceived opinions and prejudices.’” Having had their sense of white racial superiority and authority challenged, “nothing short of blood” could atone for the insult of allowing black men to vote and hold political office.

Green also notes that, while white outsiders were treated with silent contempt, black Southerners were cajoled, threatened, and entreated to give up their newly won rights. They refused, choosing the “cause of the Union” over the “fair promises of their former masters.” Green recounts how some black men walked for more than twenty miles in order to exercise their right to vote. When black men refused to voluntarily give up their voting rights, some white Southerners adopted a plan of “ku-klux-ism–a policy of cowardice, perjury, rapine and murder” as a “last resort” to assert their authority, Green wrote.

The KKK operated as a terrorist organization–with “a knife in one hand and a torch in the other, while in their belt they wore a revolver.” They also employed whips, the symbol of the slave driver. Green outlines the atrocities committed by the Klan, from floggings to murder, writing that a “perfect reign of terror” had been inaugurated across much of the South by Klan members. Republicans living and working in far-flung rural areas had no choice but to appeal to the federal government for protection.

Green also offers examples of how this violence was met with resistance. After placards were posted and distributed through Hudsonville, where Green was living, that threatened the life of the state senator from that county, Green and others took the threat seriously and organized a nightly guard around the senator's house. Green also notes how, when a knife-wielding man rushed the stage at a Republican rally, “a dozen sable sons of our party stood between the speaker and his assailant.” When a Democrat took issue with an oration given by a Republican and tried to pull him off stage, “he came well nigh being paid for his temerity by a thrust from a sword.”

Essential Themes

The primary purpose of this account was to document the danger faced by black and white Republicans in the South after the Civil War at the hands of violent paramilitary groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. John Patterson Green describes what he thinks gave rise to these groups–namely, former Confederates' inability to convince black Southerners to voluntarily give up their newly won civil rights, and their unwillingness to adapt to the changed racial relationship. The Ku Klux Klan and other groups like it used violence and threats to bring about what they were unable to accomplish through the political process: the return of black Southerners to a subordinate position. Green also describes the resistance to the threat of violence, particularly the gritty determination on the part of black Southerners to vote and to provide physical protection to politicians who represented their interests. Their support of Republican politicians was crucial. However, so was that of the federal government, and after Reconstruction ended and federal troops withdrew from the last of the Southern states in 1877, Democratic politicians were to return to power and strip away many of the political and social gains African Americans had made in those states.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Alexander, Danielle. “Forty Acres and a Mule: The Ruined Hope of Reconstruction.” Humanities 25.1 (2004): 26–29. Print.
  • Bullard, Sara. The Ku Klux Klan: A History of Racism and Violence. 4th ed. Montgomery: Klanwatch Project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, 1991. Print.
  • Du Bois, W. E. B. Black Reconstruction in America 1860–1880. New York: Simon, 1935. Print.
  • Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877. New York: HarperCollins, 2011. Print.
  • “Green, John Patterson.” The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History. Case Western Reserve, 16 Jul. 1997. Web. 27 Jan. 2014.
  • Martinez, James Michael. Carpetbaggers, Cavalry, and the Ku Klux Klan: Exposing the Invisible Empire during Reconstruction. Lanham: Rowman, 2007. Print.
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