In 1871, William Woods Holden, the Republican governor of North Carolina, was accused of calling out and using the State’s militia to oppress the people that lived there. Moreover, the articles of impeachment said that Holden justified this by saying it was necessary to quell an insurrection, one which the complainants said did not exist.
Except it did.
Following the end of the American Civil War in 1865, the United States underwent the “Reconstruction era”, intended to reintegrate the secessionist Southern States back into the Union. But it wasn’t an easy, or indeed, a particularly successful affair, with North Carolina being only one example of the continued conflict between Washington and the southern rebels.
One of the major reactions in the former slave states was the formation of an organisation that has since become infamous and a byword for racial hatred and intolerance – the Ku Klux Klan.
This conducted a vicious underground war against the black population of North Carolina. Determined to stop the newly freed and enfranchised blacks from voting, they launched a campaign of terror, lynching and murder.
Holden was elected in 1868 and set about seeking to reign in the Klan and bring them to justice. However, by 1870, the Klan were running wild.
On the night February 26, they attacked the home of Wyatt Outlaw, the Town Commissioner and Constable of the town of Graham, North Carolina. Outlaw, an African American who had served in the Union Cavalry during the Civil War, had been a foremost opponent of the KKK.
Dragged from his house, the Klan lynched him from a tree in front of the town courthouse. No one was ever prosecuted for his death, and a potential witness was also later murdered.
Then, on May 21, John W. Stephens, a white, former-Confederate officer and then Republican state senator was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in the Caswell County Courthouse. Reports are confused, but he was apparently garrotted and knifed to death in a back room by multiple assailants.
This was the justification that Holden needed. With the support of President Grant, who had a bit of a reputation for disliking Confederate types, he declared Martial Law in two counties in North Carolina.
A militia was formed under Colonel George Washington Kirk, which marched into the areas that the Klan was rife in.
Dubbed the “Kirk-Holden war”, the militia began barging about the place, rounding up and arresting Klan leaders, which were many of the so-called foremost citizens in the region. This heavy-handed approach was not popular with many residents, especially as Holden suspended the right of Habeus Corpus – which allows a court to demand a prisoner be forth from custody to see if their incarceration is legal.
The Klan went underground but continued to operate at night and to intimidate the black community. And 1870 was an election year.
By suppressing the black and Republican voters through terrorism, the Klan was able to help the Democrat party win dominance in the State legislature.[i] With control of the State, Representative Frederick Strudwick brought charges of impeachment against Holden. Strudwick was a Klan leader.
Holden was charged with violating the constitutional rights of citizens and of using rough treatment on detainees – which to be fair is true, ignoring the fact that many of those whose rights were being violated were vicious thugs and murderers.
After a three-month trial, he was removed from office.
The Klan had used violence and voter suppression to undermine democracy and rise to power in the state. A Federal investigation found that although Klan atrocities were common, not a single Klansman was ever charged.
President Grant, not too impressed by what was happening not just in North Carolina but across the South, passed the Ku Klux Klan Act in April 1871. This saw white supremacist terrorist groups like the KKK become an issue for the federal authorities. As a result, federal troops deployed in several Southern States, arresting Klan leaders and largely breaking up the organisation.
This certainly was not the end of Klan. Though the organisation itself had to remain underground for several decades after this, its members now had political power to push their racist agenda. After the impeachment they changed the North Carolinian constitution to remove many of the rights that black people had been granted, ushering in the segregationist Jim Crow Era.
And as for Holden? He resumed his job as a newspaper editor, which he had performed before getting into politics. He was posthumously pardoned by the North Carolina Senate in 2011.
Though to be fair, that wasn’t something Holden was bothered about himself when alive, on the grounds that he had never done anything that needed pardoning.
[i] In the 1800s the Republicans were the “liberals” – for want of a better term – and the Democrats were the racist right-wingers. American political history is weird.