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  • United States District Judge Richard Busteed and the Alabama Klan Trials of 1872
  • Christopher Lyle McIlwain Sr. (bio)

There was good reason for striking while the iron was hot following the compromise settlement of the bitter 1876 presidential election. One of Alabama’s newly elected U.S. Senator John Tyler Morgan’s earliest acts was to write Rutherford Hayes’s attorney general requesting that the Justice Department (Bourbon Democrats like Morgan derided it the “Department of Injustice”) adopt a more passive policy regarding prosecutions under the controversial Enforcement Acts. Derided in the South, the Enforcement Acts were intended to stem racial violence and election fraud following Emancipation and the freedmen’s enfranchisement, and violence and fraud driven by white Democrats’ determination to undo the Republican Party’s consequent electoral successes in the region.1

Along with economic coercion and social pressure, violence against blacks specifically, and election fraud more generally, were tools for the maintenance of political dominance by Bourbon Democrat [End Page 263] lawyers like Morgan. Indeed the actions of Bourbons like Morgan were tinged by memories of Republican resurgence in the 1872 Alabama elections when a ticket led by Huntsville lawyer and wartime Unionist David Peter Lewis defeated Thomas Hord Herndon, a Mobile lawyer, pre-war secessionist, and Confederate colonel.2

Remarkably, those 1872 elections represented the only instance during the Reconstruction Era that a Southern state already “redeemed” by the Bourbon Democrats was subsequently “un-redeemed” by Republicans.3 Bourbons would not feel truly safe from another Republican resurgence until (with Senator Morgan’s ful-some support) the adoption in 1901 of a new constitution containing provisions intended to disfranchise blacks and poor whites.4 Until then, the Bourbons placed their hopes on obtaining assurances of a lax enforcement policy regarding the Enforcement Acts from the executive branch.

Ironically, in 1871, the possibility of a Republican comeback seemed remote to most political observers in Alabama, including incumbent Republican United States Senator George Spencer.5 In 1870, Democrats regained the statehouse thanks in large part to low voter turnout across the Black Belt. Turnout had fallen precipitously, due apparently to reports of violence in Greene County in October, initiated by Ku Klux Klansmen under the tactical command of John [End Page 264] Jefferson Jolly, a thirty-three year old Greene County lawyer and former Confederate colonel. Fearful Black Belt Republicans stayed home on election day, allowing Democrats to win the state offices they lost after their boycott of the 1868 elections.6 Shortly thereafter, the Klan broadcast their intention to purge Republicans from every local political office—sheriffs, probate judges, circuit judges, circuit clerks—whose incumbent officers played any role in the electoral or judicial processes. The most notorious example involved Hale County Probate Judge Dr. William T. Blackford, who resigned when faced with intimidation and threats of violence. He was replaced by a Democrat appointed by the newly elected Democratic Governor, Florence attorney Robert Burns Lindsay.7 As a result of these specific hedges, as well as a more general array of self-inflicted political wounds, it seemed unlikely in 1871 that the Alabama Republican Party could avoid total disintegration before the 1872 elections, much less make a successful comeback in the gubernatorial and legislative races.8 Absent some extraordinary relief, Spencer’s bid for re-election to the United States Senate by the 1872–73 Alabama legislature was a pipe dream.9

However, in addition to eliminating a potential threat to the reelection of President Ulysses Grant in 1872, the Enforcement Acts gave Spencer some hope of making that dream a reality if Justice Department officials in Alabama would aggressively pursue violators, and if convictions could be obtained in federal courts. Congress assisted [End Page 265] this process by conducting public hearings and subpoenaing suspected Alabama Klan leaders who were interrogated under oath regarding acts of violence and the existence of a conspiracy to commit those acts. Not only did this investigation create an invaluable record repeatedly tapped by historians of the period, but it provided federal prosecutors with background information important to the formation of their trial strategies, as well as ammunition to combat the constant denials of the Bourbon Democrat press that the...


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