Ku Klux Klan Act (1871)

views updated Jun 08 2018

Ku Klux Klan Act (1871)

Julie Davies

The Enforcement Act (17 Stat. 13), commonly known as the Ku Klux Klan Act or the Civil Rights Act of 1871, was a response to extraordinary civil unrest during the Reconstruction period. This unrest threatened the lives and the political and economic rights of all newly freed slaves. Although closely tied to the era in which it was enacted, portions of the statute remain extraordinarily important to modern civil rights enforcement.


Section 1 of the act (now codified at 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and called in this entry "section 1983"), provided that any person deprived of rights conferred by the Constitution by someone acting "under color" of law (i.e., a state or local official acting with legally granted authority, or, through purporting to act within such limits, an official may be misusing authority) or custom could bring suit in federal court and recover damages or equitable relief. Section 2 (now codified at 42 U.S.C. § 1985, and called in this entry "section 1985") of the act provided criminal sanctions and a civil damages action for conspiracy to commit a range of offenses. These offenses included attempting to overthrow the government, intimidating witnesses or parties to legal action, using threat or force to influence jurors, or going on the highway in disguise to deprive others of the exercise of constitutional rights guaranteed by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. The section is used less frequently than section 1, but is still a relevant and powerful piece of civil rights legislation.

Section 3 of the act authorized the president to use the U.S. armed forces to put down rebellions, and section 4 permitted the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus. Section 5 provided that jurors in U.S. courts must not be parties to combinations or conspiracies and that they must swear, on penalty of perjury, that they did not have any allegiances to groups dedicated to the overthrow of the government or denial of constitutional rights. Section 6 (now 42 U.S.C. § 1986), provided that persons with knowledge of a conspiracy who failed to take reasonable actions to prevent wrongful acts from occurring could be named as a defendant and be held liable for any death caused by failure to intercede.


Knowing the act's background is essential to understanding its place in history and its contemporary relevance. The United States Supreme Court, in its interpretation of the act, has taken that historical background extremely seriously.

The act was intended to enforce the Fourteenth Amendment. The motivation for its passage really begins with events that took place near the end of the Civil War in 1863. At the time, President Abraham Lincoln issued a simple statement called the Emancipation Proclamation. This document freed the slaves in the states that had seceded from the Union. Because the Emancipation Proclamation was a presidential order, Congress was concerned it might be overridden by subsequent legislation. Congress then passed the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude and gave Congress the power to enforce its provisions.

It soon became clear that the Thirteenth Amendment was insufficient to end the conditions of servitude in which the freed slaves found themselves. Many states enacted "Black Codes." These were laws that so closely regulated the lives of the former slaves as to be just short of slavery. For example, unemployed African Americans could be fined as vagrants or imprisoned. To enter some states, they had to post bond. As a result, African Americans found themselves limited to working for their former masters, and still ostracized and inhibited from enjoying any fruits of freedom.

Congress passed several historic civil rights acts in an effort to remedy the limitations of the Thirteenth Amendment. The Act of April 9, 1866 gave the former slaves citizenship and some basic economic and legal rights. Doubts as to the constitutional validity of this law led to the adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution in 1868. Like the 1866 act, the Fourteenth Amendment bestowed citizenship as a national birthright, overruling the Dred Scott Decision of 1857. It contained broader prohibitions against discrimination than those in the 1866 act. It guaranteed that no state would make laws to abridge "the privileges and immunities of citizens" or deprive any person of "life, liberty or property without due process of law," or "deny any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment gave Congress the power to enforce its provisions.

The Southern states initially refused to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment. In response, Congress instituted military, or radical, reconstruction, in the South. Congress's efforts to exert greater control were successful in reconstituting the state electorates, but unsuccessful in stemming the rebelliousness of state officials and the citizenry. Evidence of the brutal lynchings of former slaves and the destruction of property began to emerge. These attacks were the work of a number of white supremacy groups, the most notorious of which was the Ku Klux Klan. Their acts were intended to deter African Americans from exercising any of the basic rights granted to them by the Civil Rights Act of 1866 or the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. Even worse, there was evidence that state officials were encouraging this vigilante action and were deliberately unresponsive to pleas they utilize law enforcement power to stop it. Even if perpetrators were apprehended, there was no commitment within the state legal systems to bringing them to justice or mete out punishment.

In March 1871 President Ulysses S. Grant came to Congress and requested emergency legislation to stem what he described as virtual anarchy in the South. He told Congress the states would not and could not control the violence. The legislative response to this plea was the Civil Rights Act of April 20, 1871. It was known as the Ku Klux Klan Act because of that group's prominent participation in the violence.


Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment gave Congress the power to address the problem President Grant described. Representative Samuel Shellabarger, a Republican from Ohio, introduced "a bill (H.R. No. 320) to enforce the provisions of the fourteenth amendment to the Constitution of the United States, and for other purposes." Section 1, the civil remedy for violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, was derived from the 1866 Civil Rights Act. It generated little debate among the representatives. The controversial portion of the act was section 2, which imposed its penalties on "any person" conspiring to do certain acts. Opponents argued that the provision would be unconstitutional because it was not limited to those acting under color of state law. This meant it could potentially reach purely private parties. The sections granting the president the power to suspend habeas corpus and to use armed force to suppress violence were also argued to be beyond the scope of the Fourteenth Amendment's protection. First the House, and then the Senate, passed the bill. The chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Lyman Trumbull, a Republican from Illinois, was a proponent of the act though he interpreted it rather narrowly. One controversial amendment, known as the Sherman Amendment, sought to make cities and counties liable for violence occurring within their borders. The House refused to concur, and legislators held a conference committee meeting. The Sherman Amendment was rewritten to impose liability only for persons who knew of a conspiracy to violate civil rights and who could have prevented it. Finally both Houses agreed and the Ku Klux Klan Act became law on April 20, 1871.


If you try to find the Klu Klux Klan Act among current United States statutes, you will be unsuccessful. In 1874 the statutes were revised in what was to be merely a procedural reorganization. Sections 1, 2, 3, 5, and 6 were scattered throughout the Revised Statutes. Section 4, permitting the suspension of habeas corpus, provided its own expiration date (after the end of the next regular section of Congress) and so did not make it into the Revised Statutes. A modern reader encounters only remnants and revisions of the original Act located in several places in the United States Code.

The various provisions of the Ku Klux Klan Act were not used frequently after their enactment. One reason was that the Supreme Court gave an extremely narrow interpretation to the privileges and immunities clause of the Fourteenth Amendment in the Slaughterhouse Cases (1873). In these cases, the Court held that only privileges and immunities of national citizenship were protected by the provision. Most civil rights were deemed to be privileges of state citizenship and fell outside the protection of the Fourteenth Amendment. This interpretation meant that states, not the federal government, would be the primary protectors of civil rights. Since the Ku Klux Klan Act was designed to enforce the Fourteenth Amendment, the result was that there was not much left to enforce. Subsequent decisions further narrowed the Fourteenth Amendment by ruling that it applied only to state action (United States v. Cruikshank [1876]; Virginia v. Rives [1879]). The Court's decision in United States v. Harris (1882) invalidated the criminal conspiracy section of the act for the same reason.

The result of these decisions was that states were once again primarily responsible for protecting the rights of their citizens, and Black Codes reappeared and melded with a system of social apartheid that became known as "Jim Crow." Congress, which had lost any political will to protect and enforce the Reconstruction Amendments and legislation, was content to see the statutes fall into disuse. Consequently, discriminatory laws affected not only African Americans but many other racial minorities.


Of the many sections of the Ku Klux Klan Act, the most influential today is the little debated section 1983. The section provides in part:

Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress....

The language of the statute is much the same as it was in 1871. Interestingly, the 1874 revisions resulted in the apparently inadvertent insertion of the words "and laws," which has resulted in a large expansion of the statute's coverage. Reference to the District of Columbia and to territories was added in 1979.

Section 1983 allows people to sue for state and local violations of the Constitution and federal law. It enables private citizens to affirmatively enforce these rights. Lawsuits may be brought in federal or state court, and the remedies available for violations include damages and injunctive relief. A key to Section 1983's revitalization was when the Supreme Court breathed new life into the Fourteenth Amendment. The Court developed an extensive theoretical framework for the due process and equal protection clauses, under which it recognized a wide variety of federally protected rights. Also, in Monroe v. Pape (1961), the Supreme Court interpreted Section 1983's "under color of law" requirement to cover cases in which state and local officials were not acting in accordance with state law but in violation of it. This was the beginning of a series of interpretations that loosened the judicial stranglehold on civil rights legislation that had been passed during the Reconstruction era.

More recently, a vast number of Supreme Court decisions relate to Section 1983. They cover issues such as the conditions under which governmental entities can be held liable for acts of their various employees, immunities that can be asserted to preclude suits against particular officials, the requirements for awards of damages and injunctive relief, circumstances in which federal courts should abstain from deciding a Section 1983 claim, and more. The rights litigated under Section 1983 are extremely varied, including not only equal protection and due process, but constitutional rights made applicable to the states by the Fourteenth Amendment and many federal statutes.

Section 1985 provides a civil action for those injured by conspiracies formed to prevent an officer of the United States from performing official duties, to obstruct justice, or "for the purpose of depriving, either directly or indirectly, any person or class of persons of the equal protection of the laws, or of the equal privileges and immunities under the laws." Unlike Section 1983, the statute was interpreted to apply to the actions of private parties in Griffin v. Breckenridge (1971). This interpretation is consistent with the statute's original goal of reaching Ku Klux Klan conspirators. Although it applies to private individuals, the statute has a narrow scope because the Supreme Court has sought to ensure that it does not encompass ordinary civil wrongs or crimes. To confine the type of private behavior covered by section 1985, the Court wrote in the Griffin case that "there must be some racial or perhaps other class-based invidiously discriminatory animus behind the conspirators' action."

Bray v. Alexandria Women's Health Clinic (1993) illustrates this limitation. In Bray, a group of plaintiffs who provided abortions or wished to use abortion clinics sought unsuccessfully to use section 1985 against members of Operation Rescue for their organization and coordination of demonstrations blocking access to abortion clinics. Justice Antonin Scalia, writing for the Court, rejected arguments that the conspiracy was against women as a class, or that it was designed to defeat exercise of the right to travel guaranteed in the Constitution. He concluded that "women seeking abortion" was not a qualifying class.

Although the criminal counterpart to section 1985 was found unconstitutional, a very similar criminal conspiracy statute derived from the Civil Rights Act of 1870 survived, and was interpreted to reach private conspiracies. Another viable, but rarely used provision, section 1986 (42 U.S.C. Section 1986), permits an action for neglecting to prevent a conspiracy. Courts have found that plaintiffs seeking to establish a violation of section 1986 must also establish a violation of Section 1985. An example of a potentially valid claim stems from a case where African American motorists alleged that the attorney general of New Jersey had conspired with members of his office staff to conceal the existence of racial profiling from the judiciary and Justice Departments, and that, despite his knowledge of racially motivated conspiracies among the state police, he did nothing to stop the conspirators.

Another provision grants the president the power to utilize the armed forces of the United States to combat insurrections. Although it has not been used frequently, it was invoked by President Dwight Eisenhower to order federal troops to Little Rock in 1957 when the governor of Arkansas had ordered the Arkansas National Guard to block school desegregation.

In conclusion, though the Klu Klux Klan Act was a response to a unique threat to the exercise of constitutional rights, the act was drafted broadly enough that portions of it, particularly section 1983, are vital to modern enforcement of constitutional and federal statutory rights.

See also: Civil Rights Acts of 1866, 1875, 1957, 1964; Fair Housing Act; Force Act of 1871; Voting Rights Act of 1965.


Kluger, Richard. Simple Justice: The History of Brown v. Board of Education and Black America's Struggle for Equality. New York: Vintage, 1977.

Schwartz, Bernard, ed. Statutory History of the United States: Civil Rights, Part 1. New York: Chelsea House, 1970.

Smith, Carter, ed. One Nation Again: A Sourcebook on the Civil War. Brookfield, CT: Millbrook Press, 1993.

Stampp, Kenneth M. The Era of Reconstruction 18651877. New York: Vintage, 1965.

Woodward, C. Vann. The Strange Career of Jim Crow, 3d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974.

Ziff, Marsha. Reconstruction Following the Civil War in American History. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow Publishers, 1999.


The term apartheid, which is the Afrikaans word for "apartness," refers to the South African policy of strict racial segregation. The term was first used in the 1930s and the practice of apartheid became law in 1948 when nonwhites were put under the domination of the white minority. South Africans were identified by one of four racial categories: white, Bantu (black), Coloured (which referred to people of mixed race), or Asian (mostly Indians and Pakistanis). Education and public facilities were segregated, and social contact between the races was prohibited. Nonwhites were allowed to live only in designated areas and during the 1950s, blacks were relegat ed to ten distinct, self-governing states called "Bantus tands." The Bantustands had few resources or economic opportunities and quickly became slums. White police harassed those suspected of association with black nationalist groups, and civil rights leaders were jailed. Nelson Mandela, leader of the opposition African National Congress, was sentenced to life in prison on the charge of attempting to overthrow the South African government. During the 1970s and 1980s strikes and riots in the Bantustands helped bring the situation to the attention of the world. International firms began pulling out of the country, neighboring African coun tries increased political pressure, and the United States and the United Kingdom imposed economic sanctions. Amid extreme violence and turmoil, the South African government finally abandoned apartheid during the 1990s and free elections were held for the first time in history. In 1994 Nelson Mandela, released in 1990, was elected president.

The Ku Klux Klan

The Ku Klux Klan is a brutal white supremacy organization that has gone through several distinct incarnations since the Civil War. Founded in Tennessee as a social fraternity in 1866, the Klan evolved into a vigilante organization of former Confederates who opposed the Republican state government and sought to keep blacks "in their place." Klan members disguised in white robes, masks, and tall hats terrorized blacks and their Republican supporters with floggings, lynchings, and the destruction of property. Congress retaliated with the Civil Rights Acts, and the Klan was effectively suppressed by 1872. A second incarnation of the group appeared in 1915, when the patriotism prompted by World War I combined with a wave of Southern romantic nostalgia about the lost Confederacy. The Klan's mem berswho numbered more than three million by the early 1920sfound it a bastion not only against blacks, but also against immigrants, Jews, Catholics, and Communists. Positioned as the guardian of American institutions and Protestant values, the Klan became a significant political influence, helping to elect more than two dozen senators and governors. As reports of lynching, mutilation, rape, and other violence by the Klan began to emerge, however, the group's broad, mainstream base was alienated. Weak orga nization and corrupt leadership contributed to a rapid drop in membership, and by the late 1920s the Klan had faded once again. It was legally disbanded in 1944 in lieu of payment of back taxes. The Klan reemerged after World War II in response to the civil rights movement. In the early 1960s the Klan attacked freedom riders, killed four children in a Birmingham church bombing, and murdered three civil rights workers in Mississippi. In 1964 the FBI began to infil trate the Klan in order to suppress it and by 1975 member ship had dropped from 50,000 to 6,500. The Klan as it exists today is small and fragmented.

Ku Klux Klan Act

views updated May 17 2018


The Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 (ch. 22, 17 Stat. 13 [codified as amended at 18 U.S.C.A. § 241, 42 U.S.C.A. §§ 1983, 1985(3), and 1988]), also called the Civil Rights Act of 1871 or the Force Act of 1871, was one of several important civil rights acts passed by Congress during Reconstruction, the period following the Civil War when the victorious northern states attempted to create a new political order in the South. The act was intended to protect African Americans from violence perpetrated by the ku klux klan (KKK), a white supremacist group.

In March 1871, President ulysses s. grant requested from Congress legislation that would address the problem of KKK violence, which had grown steadily since the group's formation in 1866. Congress responded on April 20, 1871, with the passage of the Ku Klux Klan Act, originally introduced as a bill "to enforce the provisions of the fourteenth amendment and for other purposes." Section 1 of the act covered enforcement of the Fourteenth Amendment and was later codified, in part, at 42 U.S.C.A. § 1983. Section 2 of the act, codified at 42 U.S.C.A. § 1985(3), provided civil and criminal penalties intended to deal with conspiratorial violence of the kind practiced by the Klan. Both sections of the act were intended to give federal protection to Fourteenth Amendment rights that were regularly being violated by private individuals as opposed to the state.

In addition, the Ku Klux Klan Act gave the president power to suspend the writ of habeas corpus in order to fight the KKK. President Grant used this power only once, in October 1871, in ten South Carolina counties experiencing high levels of Klan terrorism. The act also banned KKK and other conspiracy members from serving on juries.

The Republicans who framed the Ku Klux Klan Act intended it to provide a federal remedy for private conspiracies of the sort practiced by the KKK against African Americans and others. As had become all too apparent by 1871, local and state courts were ineffective in prosecuting Klan violence. Local and state law enforcement officials, including judges, were often sympathetic to the KKK or were subject to intimidation by the group, as were trial witnesses. The Ku Klux Klan Act would allow victims of Klan violence to take their case to a federal court, where, it was supposed, they would receive a fairer trial.

The act, like other civil rights laws from the Reconstruction era, sparked considerable legal debate. Its detractors claimed that the law improperly expanded federal jurisdiction to areas of criminal law better left to the states. The Supreme Court took this view in 1883 when it struck down the criminal provisions of the act's second section on the ground that protecting individuals from private conspiracies was a state and not federal function (United States v. Harris, 106 U.S. 629, 1 S. Ct. 601, 27 L. Ed. 290). This and other rulings stripped the Ku Klux Klan Act of much of its power. Like many other civil rights laws from its era, it went largely unenforced in succeeding decades.

The remaining civil provisions of the act were later codified under 42 U.S.C.A. § 1985(3), where they have been referred to as the conspiracy statute. These provisions hold, in part, that when two or more persons "conspire or go in disguise on the highway or the premises of another, for the purpose of depriving … any person or class of persons of the equal protection of the law," they may be sued by the injured parties. The civil provisions, or § 1985(3), remained generally unused until the 1971 U.S. Supreme Court decision Griffin v. Breckenridge, 403 U.S. 88, 91 S. Ct. 1790, 29 L. Ed. 2d 338. In Griffin, the Court reaffirmed the original intention of § 1985(3) and ruled that the statute may allow a civil remedy for certain private conspiracies. The Griffin case concerned a 1966 incident in Mississippi in which a group of white men stopped a car out of suspicion that one of its three African–American occupants was a civil rights worker. The whites proceeded to beat and threaten the African Americans. The Court upheld one victim's claim that, under § 1985(3), the whites had engaged in a conspiracy to deny him the equal protection of the laws of the United States and Mississippi.

In making its decision, the Court was careful to restrict § 1985 claims to those involving actions motivated by "some racial, or perhaps otherwise class-based, invidiously discriminatory animus." This standard meant that the conspirators in question had to be motivated against a class of persons, not a particular political or social issue. By creating this standard, the Court sought to prevent § 1985(3) from becoming a "general federal tort law" that would cover every type of private conspiracy.

Since Griffin, the Court has expressed misgivings about expanding the types of classes protected by the statute. Using the Griffin standard, the Court later ruled in United Brotherhood of Carpenters & Joiners v. Scott, 463 U.S. 825, 103 S. Ct. 3352, 77 L. Ed. 2d 1049 (1983), that economic or commercial groups could not be considered a class protected by the law. In that case, the Court rejected a claim by nonunion workers who had been attacked by union workers at job sites.

During the 1980s and 1990s, lower federal courts upheld the use of § 1985(3) against antiabortion protesters who blockaded family planning clinics with large demonstrations and disruptions. In one ruling, a federal district court held that an antiabortion group had conspired to violate the right to interstate travel of women seeking to visit family planning clinics (NOW v. Operation Rescue, 726 F. Supp. 1483 [E.D. Va. 1989]).

However, in a 1993 case, Bray v. Alexandria Women's Health Clinic, 506 U.S. 263, 113 S. Ct. 753, 122 L. Ed. 2d 34, the Supreme Court ruled that § 1985(3) could not be used against antiabortion protesters. The Court held that women seeking abortion cannot be considered a class under the terms of the law.

further readings

Brown, Bruce. 1991. "Injunctive Relief and Section 1985(3): Anti-Abortion Blockaders Meet the 'Ku Klux Klan Act.'" Buffalo Law Review 39 (fall).

Gormley, Ken. 1985. "Private Conspiracies and the Constitution: A Modern Vision of 42 U.S.C. Section 1985(3)." Texas Law Review 64 (November).

Hall, Kermit L. 1984. "Political Power and Constitutional Legitimacy: The South Carolina Ku Klux Klan Trials, 1871–1872." Emory Law Journal 33 (fall).

Mcmurtry, Joy Hollingsworth, and Patti S. Pennock. 1995. "Ending the Violence: Applying the Ku Klux Klan Act, RICO, and FACE to the Abortion Controversy." Land and Water Law Review 30.


Civil Rights Acts; Civil Rights Cases; Civil Rights Movement; Jim Crow Laws.