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The South Carolina Ku Klux Klan Trials and Enforcement of Federal Rights, 1871-1872 Lou Falkner Williams The great South Carolina Ku Klux Klan trials of 1871 and 1872, the most important and controversial of the Klan trials in the South, afford a unique opportunity to observe federal Reconstruction measures at the local level.1 The Fourth Circuit Court became a forum for constitutional interpretation as prosecution and defense attorneys struggled to define the scope and meaning of the vague phrases of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments, the Enforcement Act of 1870, and the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871. Both sides recognized that the decisions rendered by the judges would have far-reaching implications for the future.2 The prosecution's goal was not simply to gain convictions but to establish a broad nationalization of black civil and political rights. Although convictions were easily obtainable under the conspiracy provisions of the Enforcement Act of 1870, federal attorneys framed long indictments with counts designed to test the meaning of the Reconstruction amendments, stretch the limits of the state action concept, and incorporate the Second and the Fourth through the Fourteenth amendments The author wishes to thank Kermit L. Hall and Bertram Wyatt-Brown for their helpful comments and criticism. 1 On the South Carolina Klan see Herbert Shapiro, "The Ku Klux Klan during Reconstruction : The South Carolina Episode," Journal of Negro History 49 (Jan. 1964):34-55; Francis B. Simkins, "The Ku Klux Klan in South Carolina, 1868-1871," Journal of Negro History 12 (Oct. 1927):606-47; Allen Trelease, White Terror: The Ku Klux Klan Conspiracy and Southern Reconstruction (New York: Harper and Row, 1971). 2 On the South Carolina Klan trials see Kermit L. Hall, "Political Power and Constitutional Legitimacy: The South Carolina Ku Klux Klan Trials, 1871-1872," Emory Law Journal 33 (Fall 1984):921-51; Kermit L. Hall and Lou Falkner Williams, "Constitutional Tradition Amid Social Change: Hugh Lennox Bond and the Ku Klux Klan in South Carolina," Maryland Historian 16 (Fall-Winter 1985):43-58; Robert J. Kaczorowski, 77«? Politics of Judicial Interpretation: The Federal Courts, the Department of Justice, and Civil Rights, ¡866-1876 (New York: Oceana Press, 1985). Ovil War History, Vol. XXXIX, No. 1, c 1993 by The Kent Sute University Press 48CIVIL WAR HISTORY in order to secure for blacks the right to bear arms and to be safe in their homes from illegal search and seizure.3 These fundamental freedoms were essential if blacks were to maintain their political rights. Incorporation also offered the best hope of extending federal protection to black women who, although often the victims of Klan atrocities, were totally unprotected by the conspiracy provisions of the enforcement acts designed to protect political rights—rights women did not enjoy. The adversarial nature of the courtroom provided equal opportunity for the defense, and South Carolina Democrats rose to the challenge. Two of the nation's most talented constitutional lawyers pressed for a conservative interpretation of the Reconstruction amendments and enforcement acts, a goal by no means limited to Democrats but shared by many Republicans who desired a quick return to traditional federal state relations. Thus the South Carolina trials delineated the constitutional conflicts within a nation deeply divided over its responsibilities to four million freedmen and its authority to protect them in the rights of citizenship. The prosecution needed to gain strong precedents at the trial level if the federal government was to secure black citizens in their civil and political rights. Responsibility for planning and implementing prosecution strategy fell primarily on the shoulders of federal District Attorney David T. Corbin. By 1871 Corbin was a prominent South Carolina Republican who enjoyed the "reputation of being one of the most conservative and fair of the Republican Party." Corbin had graduated from Dartmouth College and established a law practice in Vermont before the Civil War began. He served in the Union Army and then came to South Carolina as a member of the Veteran Reserve Corps. As a Freedman's Bureau agent, Corbin observed firsthand the stormy relations between white South Carolinians and the former slaves. Corbin served as United States attorney from 1867 through 1877. At the same...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6271
Print ISSN
0009-8078
Pages
pp. 47-66
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-04
Open Access
No
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