On April 20, 1871, the House approved An Act to Enforce the Provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United Sates and other provisions.
Post-Civil War, the 13th 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution were passed. In 1865, the 13th amendment abolished slavery. In 1868, the 14th Amendment defined citizenship and guaranteed due process and equal protection under the law. In 1870, the 15th Amendment precluded abridgement — that is, civil rights granted by the federal government or the Constitution such as “the right of citizens of the United States to vote” could not be denied or abridged by state law.
‘The KKK Act’
Notwithstanding, vigilante groups like the Ku Klux Klan threatened African Americans and their white allies in the South. Thus the 1871 act was dubbed “The KKK Act.” It meant to stop the violence by giving President Ulysses S. Grant the right to intervene and take actions including suspending habeas corpus, deploying the U.S. military, declaring martial law and imposing penalties against terrorist organizations.
Those who objected to the law were those vulnerable to it. However, the objection verbalized was that it was unconstitutional because it stripped states of power and granted too much power to the president. Supporters of the law said “Let the different classes of our populations feel that the interest and welfare of one is the interest and welfare of all.”
The Ku Klux Klan was founded in Tennessee in 1865 by Confederate veterans of the Civil War. Ku Klux — from the Greek Kuklos – means circle. However, members added the word Klan and claimed together it meant “white brotherhood.” By 1867 the KKK grew into an armed paramilitary unit pledged to “a white man’s government”. Violence peaked around the elections of 1868 and 1870.
In 1870, South Caroline Gov. Robert Scott wrote to President Grant: “We have just passed through an Election which, for rancor and virulence on the part of the opposition, has never been excelled in any civilized community … for the sole reason that they [Blacks] dared to exercise their [right to vote] and [voice] opinions upon political subjects.”
In October 1871, for the first time, Grant used the powers of the KKK Act to stop violence in several South Carolina counties.
The KKK Act rose again in the 20th century around the issue of immigration. The recession of 1920 to 1921, the First Red Scare, the trial of Sacco and Vanzetti — all aroused the KKK and their 20th-century opposition to immigration. The Emergency Quota Act of 1921 limited immigration to three percent of the number of immigrants living in the United States in 1910, which only partially stemmed the flow. In 1913, Congress passed a more stringent law that all but eliminated the flow of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe as well as most of Asia. It was a victory for the KKK and others “protecting American culture.”
The KKK marched again in opposition to the African American civil rights movement of the 1960s. In 1965, the Voting Rights Act was passed to further bolster the rights of minorities.
What we face today
Today, the right of minorities to vote is being challenged in Georgia and several other southern states. Laws have been introduced to limit methods of voting — such as mail-in — and limit access to polling places and the days and hours when people can vote. In addition, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, white supremacist violence is again on the rise. Examples cited were the 2015 Charleston church shooting; the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va.; the 2018 Pittsburgh synagogue shooting; 2019 shooting in an El Paso, Texas, Walmart; and the Jan. 6 incursion into the Capitol.
Now, the KKK Act is again in the news, cited in a federal lawsuit aimed at those involved in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. Filed by House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., it appeared to turn the original intent on its head. Rather than citing the president’s power to stop violence, Thompson accused the former president of inciting violence. The suit also named the president’s lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, members of the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers of conspiring to incite violence. The accusation was consistent with another paragraph in the KKK Act that forbids any effort to prevent elected officials from preforming their Constitutional duties. On Jan. 6, the incursion interrupted the duty of Congress to certify the Electoral College vote thereby certifying Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 presidential election.
In the streets, the courts and the Legislatures, and by violence, Gerrymandering and spurious laws, the efforts to disenfranchise never stopped. For 150 years, from 1870 to 2020, preventing nonwhites from voting was a constant. What next? Are we as entrenched as in post-Civil War America?