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South Carolina Ku Klux Klan Trials: 1871-72 - The Trials Begin

mitchell john robert whitesides

Of the original 220 Klansmen who were indicted, only five were prosecuted. 53 others pleaded guilty and the cases against the rest were postponed. The five who went to trial were all charged with violating the Enforcement Act. Four of the defendants, Robert Mitchell, John Mitchell, Thomas Whitesides, and John Millar [or Miller; court transcripts alternate between the spellings], were charged with conspiracy to prevent "male citizens of the United States of African descent" from voting in the upcoming 1872 election. In addition, Robert Mitchell was accused of conspiracy to oppress, threaten, and intimidate a black man because he had voted in the 1870 election. John Mitchell and Thomas Whitesides, were also charged with three counts of conspiracy to prevent a black man from voting in 1872 and to oppress, threaten, and intimidate him because he voted in 1870. The fifth defendant, Dr. Edward T. Avery, was charged with conspiracy to prevent three blacks from voting in 1872 and with conspiracy to oppress, threaten, and intimidate the three because they had voted in 1870.

The initial trials were held before the U.S. Circuit Court in Columbia. Approximately $10,000 (over $100,000 today) was raised by public donations to hire Reverdy Johnson and Henry Stanbery, both former U.S. attorney generals, to assist the local defense lawyers. The prosecutors were U.S. attorney David T. Corbin and South Carolina's attorney general (and future governor) Daniel H. Chamberlain. (Both Corbin and Chamberlain were northerners who had moved to South Carolina after the Civil War.) The trials were presided by U.S. Circuit Court judge Hugh Bond, a former Maryland lawyer and state judge who sat on the recent Klan trials in North Carolina, and U.S. District Court judge George Bryan, a native of South Carolina who had been pro-Union during the Civil War.

At all four trials (Whitesides and John Mitchell were tried together), former slaves constituted the majority of the jurors. (At Robert Mitchell's and Millar's trials, nine of the 12 jurors were black; at the others, 11 of the 12.) In addition, the few whites on the juries were all Republicans and, thus, hostile to the Klan. No former Confederate soldiers (who would probably be Klansmen or supporters of the KKK) sat in judgment of the defendants because federal law prohibited Confederate veterans from sitting on federal juries.

Before the trials began, defense lawyers Reverdy Johnson and Henry Stanbery spent almost two weeks to quash nine of the 11 counts in an indictment against Allen Crosby and others. (Crosby and seven of his codefendants later pleaded guilty to the remaining charges.) Johnson and Stanbery also participated in Mitchell's defense while local counsel alone represented the other four defendants. However, the evidence presented during Mitchell's trial of the Klan's cruelty was so overwhelming that at one point Johnson, while maintaining his client's innocence, felt compelled in the courtroom to attack the activities of the KKK.

The four trials each lasted between two days and a week. In the end, Robert Mitchell was convicted of one of the two charges against him. John Mitchell and Thomas Whitesides were convicted of two of the four counts they faced. Millar and Avery were also convicted. Because Robert Mitchell, Whitesides, and Millar had minor roles in the Klan's activities, they received minor sentences. In contrast, John Mitchell was a prominent Klansman and, although he pleaded for mercy, he was sentenced to five years in prison and fined $1,000. Dr. Avery, however, was never sentenced; free on bail, he realized halfway through his trial that he was going to be convicted and fled. (The trial continued in his absence.) Of the 53 defendants who pleaded guilty, penalties ranged from three months to five years imprisonment with fines varying from $10 to $1,000. Except for those who were underage—they were sent to the Detroit House of Corrections—everyone who received sentences of a year or more was incarcerated at the federal penitentiary in Albany, New York; the rest served their time in various southern prisons and jails.

More convictions of Klansmen were obtained in South Carolina in 1872, but the number (37) was much smaller than those in 1871. Besides South Carolina, arrests and trials for violations of the Enforcement and the Ku Klux Klan Acts occurred all throughout the South in 1871 and 1872. However, only in South Carolina was habeas corpus suspended and in no other state were there as many prosecutions. Indeed, outside Mississippi, North Carolina, and Tennessee, the number of arrests and trials elsewhere was small.

It is impossible to measure the effect of the Ku Klux Klan trials. After the 1871 prosecutions in South Carolina, Klan terrorism in the state and elsewhere dramatically dropped. As a result, the number of arrests for violating the Enforcement and the Ku Klux Klan Acts rapidly declined. However, violence against southern blacks by whites in general did not substantially decline.

Mark Thorburn

Suggestions for Further Reading

Randel, William Peirce. The Ku Klux Klan: A Century of Infamy. New York: Chilton Books, 1965.

Reynolds, John A. Reconstruction in South Carolina, 1865-1877. Columbia, S.C.: State Company, 1905.Reprint, New York: Negro Universities Press, 1969.

Shapiro, Herbert. "The Ku Klux Klan during Reconstruction: The South Carolina Episode." The Journal of Negro History 49, no.1. (January 1964): 34-55.

Simkins, Francis B., and Robert H. Woody. South Carolina during Reconstruction. Chapel Hill, N.C.:University of North Carolina Press, 1932. Reprint, Gloucester, Mass.: P. Smith, 1966.

Swinney, Everette. "Enforcing the Fifteenth Amendment, 1870-1877." Journal of Southern History28, no.2. (May 1962): 202-18.

Williamson, Joel. After Slavery: The Negro in South Carolina during Reconstruction, 1861-1877. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1965.

South Carolina Ku Klux Klan Trials: 1871-72 - Suggestions For Further Reading [next] [back] South Carolina Ku Klux Klan Trials: 1871-72 - The Ku Klux Klan Act

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