The Danger of Vigilante Justice

In 1870, the new Attorney General and President Grant recognized they could not permit the Ku Klux Klan to terrorize and rule the South. A lesson for our time.

When Amos Akerman became the first US Attorney General to lead the newly formed Department of Justice in 1870, he and President Ulysses S. Grant were quite clear what the highest priority was. Across the South, in county after county, the Ku Klux Klan was spreading violence, pursuing a murderous reign of terror to frighten Black voters, deny the emergence of Black elected officials, undermine Reconstruction and the new rights of former slaves, and reinstate a Black populace broken by and submissive to their white masters.

With vigilante abandon, they terrorized witnesses and juries to avoid prosecution. And it was far from an isolated few: Akerman said that the KKK involved “at least two thirds of the active white men” in certain counties who “no doubt are part of a grand system of criminal associations pervading most of the Southern states.”

South Carolina Gov. Robert K. Scott described the horror of an election that “for rancor and virulence…has never been excelled in a civilized community…Colored men and women have been dragged from their homes at the dead hour of night and most cruelly and brutally scourged for the sole reason that they dared to exercise their own opinions upon political subjects.” In Mississippi, Black churches and schools were burned down and, after several Black leaders spoke out in one town, nearly every Black leader was murdered.

In April of 1871, Grant succeeded in leading the passage of what was commonly known as the Ku Klux Klan Act, despite opponents’ fury over his “dictatorial” action. As Ron Chernow, author of the 2018 biography Grant, explains:

“The strong new measure laid down criminal penalties for depriving citizens of their rights under the Fourteenth Amendment, including holding office, sitting on a jury, or casting a vote. The federal government could prosecute such cases when state governments refused to act. The law also endowed Grant with extraordinary powers to suspend habeas corpus, declare martial law, and send in troops. To halt night riders, the act made it illegal ‘to conspire together, or go in disguise upon the public highway…for the purpose…of depriving any person…of equal protection under the law.’”

By 1872, after Justice suspended habeas corpus and provided witnesses protection, Akerman and federal grand juries indicted 3,384 Klan members and obtained 1,143 convictions. No less than Frederick Douglass described the impact of breaking the KKK’s grip: “Peace has come to many places as never before. The scourging and slaughter of our people have so far ceased.”

I had planned to focus primarily on the continuing failure of Attorney General Merrick Garland to assert his priorities and his responsibility to prosecute the crimes of January 6 “wherever they take us,” as he insisted during his confirmation hearings in February that he would. He has a duty to inform an increasingly outraged public, to recognize that his job includes a public relations role, especially at a time when so many are wracked with worry that Justice will not pursue the well-heeled and powerful inciters, organizers and funders. Yes, that outrage includes me—because I do believe nothing less than democracy itself is at stake.

The worry that Garland and the Biden administration are failing to recognize and confront the danger in our midst was only reinforced this week by the violent talk of North Carolina Rep. Madison Cawthorn, a 26-year-old inciter and the youngest Republican ever elected to Congress.

This inflammatory man, who characterized mask mandates as “psychological child abuse,” has clearly found a strategy to grab attention by fueling the extremists. He called jailed Jan. 6 Capitol attackers “political prisoners” and said there are efforts “to try and bust them out.” He also predicted “bloodshed” would result from another “stolen” presidential election.

He may have skirted the legal edge by making it appear that he wasn’t advocating violence, just suggesting its potential. But in this rising fever of self-appointed, self-glorified vigilantes, his promise of more to come—”we are actively working on that”—should not be simply dismissed as loose talk from another craven politician. This is volatile stuff—and it’s dangerous when these elected extremists think they are immune from repercussions.

Likewise, the threats by Kevin McCarthy and Marjorie Taylor Greene to intimidate tech companies who cooperate with the House Select Committee and hand over phone records from January 6—“a Republican majority will not forget,” McCarthy said—reinforced the view that they think they are (or are desperately trying to be) above the law. This effort to obstruct the committee’s work took on a darker tone, albeit an unsurprising one, when CNN reported that McCarthy’s records are among those the Jan. 6 committee wants preserved.

The attacks in recent months against school boards represent another manifestation of the rise of cultural vigilantism employing violence to drive good people away from public service. In May and June, the conspiracy mongers were on the warpath about “critical race theory,” reminiscent of the 1920s version of the KKK seeking to take over schools and the latest attempt to fuel hostility toward an increasingly diverse America.

This has been followed by ranting protestors showing up at board meetings to protest mask mandates. In Fort Lauderdale, Florida, a man doused masks with lighter fluid and set them on fire. In Pittsburgh, after a school board passed a mask mandate, one protestor gave them the Nazi salute and another yelled, “You made Dr. Mengele proud.”

In 1870, the newly confirmed AG Akerman, backed by President Grant, understood that they could not let violent vigilante justice decide the fate of the nation. We should expect no less from our current leaders.


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