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South Carolina Ku Klux Klan Trials: 1871-72

The Ku Klux Klan Act

Initially, it was hoped that the mere existence of the Enforcement Act would deter further actions by the Klan and little was done to enforce the new law. However, the strategy did not work. In March 1871, conditions in South Carolina were bad enough that Governor Robert Scott asked for federal troops to help suppress KKK activities in his state. In response, Congress passed and President Grant signed on April 20, 1871, the Ku Klux Klan Act.

Because there were so many Klansmen and since many of the local police in the South were members of the KKK or sympathetic to its cause, the Ku Klux Klan Act allowed the president to use the army to apprehend violators of this new law. The legislation also gave the president, until 1872, the power to suspend the writ of habeas corpus. The latter provision was important because, if habeas corpus was suspended, then the authorities could make mass arrests without having to bring each defendant immediately before a court to face charges. Such a tool was vital in some southern counties where there were too many Klansmen to promptly bring them all to trial. Furthermore, because of the large number of suspects, the suspension of habeas corpus allowed the prosecutors to keep evidence (including the identities of Klansmen yet to be arrested) secret until all the defendants were in custody.

In July 1871, the U.S. Justice Department sent instructions to its officers in the South to begin prosecutions under the Ku Klux Klan Act. Those defendants whose crimes were committed before the passage of the law would be prosecuted under the Enforcement Act. Arrests and trials began in Mississippi and North Carolina, but by this time the Klan in South Carolina was out of control. On October 12, President Grant issued a proclamation ordering the Klansmen there to disperse and surrender their weapons. Nothing happened, so on October 17 Grant suspended habeas corpus in nine South Carolina counties and sent in troops to help the local U.S. marshal make the arrests.

By the end of the year, hundreds of Klansmen in South Carolina were arrested while even more fled the state; some ran as far away as Canada. Others voluntarily surrendered, gave depositions, and were released. In York County alone, 195 were taken into custody, about 200 evaded arrest, and at least 500 turned themselves in. Another 200 arrests were made in Union County and hundreds more were apprehended in Spartansburg and nearby Chester County. Indeed, the numbers were so great that the legal system could not handle them all. As a result, only the most serious offenders were detained and prosecuted while the rest were released on bail after making sworn confessions. The arrests continued for two years, but most of them were made before December 31, 1871. Fortunately, very little violence accompanied the arrests.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1833 to 1882South Carolina Ku Klux Klan Trials: 1871-72 - The South Carolina Klan, The Ku Klux Klan Act, The Trials Begin, Suggestions For Further Reading