The KKK in New York and The First Civil Rights Acts

ten men of the Watertown Division 289 wearing hats with KKK in large letters, and with a skull and bones arranged on the floor in front of them. Watertown, N.Y. 1870s.

Image is Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

While searching for images pertaining to slavery, I came across this fascinating image of ten men of the Watertown Division 289 of the Ku Klux Klan. They all sport hats with KKK in large letters, and with a skull and bones arranged on the floor in front of them. The photo was taken in the 1870s in Watertown, N.Y. The 1870s was the height of Reconstruction; federal soldiers battled vigilante groups including the Klan throughout the era of Reconstruction. On April 20, 1871, at the urging of President Ulysses S. Grant, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1871, also known as the Enforcement Act of 1871.

The Civil Rights Act of 1871 was not the first of its kind. Congress passed the first Civil Rights Act attempting to protect the rights of Black Americans in 1866. A second piece of legislation was passed in 1870 aimed at protecting civil rights called, the Enforcement Act of 1870 or the First Ku Klux Klan Act.

The Civil Rights Act of 1871 allowed for federal troops to enforce the law and combat white supremacist terrorist organizations rather than relying on state militias. Under the law Klansmen were prosecuted for crimes in federal court. Because of the 14th and 15th Amendments, many trials consisted of juries that were often predominantly Black. The efforts on the part of the federal government and juries decimated the Klan throughout the former Confederacy. Not until the premier of Birth of a Nation in 1915 would the Klan effect local politics like it had during Reconstruction.

Grant’s successor, President Rutherford B. Hayes, ended the period of Reconstruction. This lead to the dismantling of the Civil Rights Acts of 1866, 1870, and 1871. The Supreme Court declared the Ku Klux Klan Act unconstitutional, in 1882, but by this time the “First Klan”, as it is called, had withered away. The Klan left a legacy of intimidating and murdering Black and White Republican office holders. They also were successful at limiting the voting rights of Black southerners and allowing for former Confederates to take back state legislatures. It would not be for nearly a hundred years that The U.S. Congress would pass another Civil Rights Act.

This image stands as a reminder that the Klan was not a regional organization, but had acolytes in norther states as well as in southern states.

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