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Judge Albion Tourgee on the KKK

Never Forget

We are shocked by the sheer cruelty of the policies applauded by members of Donald Trump’s party, the old Republican Party. The family separation, caging children and now the acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services Ken Cuccinelli “Give me your tired, your poor who can stand on their own two feet and will not become a public charge.” This goes against everything that we learned about the meaning and promise of this country. And we are surprised by it, and yet we shouldn’t be.

Part of the problem is that white Americans have not been taught about the cruelty that is a part of their history, success and woven throughout the fabric of the nation. There are whole chapters left out or covered in a sentence. Had the truth been told about the birth of the nation and the blood spilled, perhaps we could have avoided the race-based carnage we see across the country today.


The following letter was published in the New York Tribune in 1870. In it, Judge Albion Tourgee of North Carolina describes the outrages of the Ku Klux Klan to an acquaintance in the U.S. Senate. It gives insight into the wellspring of the “Send her back” chants and angry explosions of racial violence. DG


Greensboro, (N.C.), May 24, 1870 


My Dear General, 

It is my mournful duty to inform you that our friend, John W. Stephens, State Senator from Caswell, is dead. He was foully murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in the Grand Jury room of the courthouse on Saturday or Saturday night last. The circumstances attending his murder have not yet fully come to light there. So far as I can learn, I judge these to have been the circumstances: He was one of the Justices of the Peace in that township and was accustomed to hold court in that room on Saturdays. It is evident that he was set upon by someone while holding this court, or immediately after its close, and disabled by a sudden attack, otherwise there would have been a very sharp resistance, as he was a man and always went armed to the teeth. 

He was stabbed five or six times, and then hanged on a hook in the Grand Jury room, where he was found on Sunday morning. Another brave, honest Republican citizen has met his fate at the hands of these fiends. Warned of his danger, and fully cognizant of the terrible risk which surrounded him, he still manfully refused to quit the field. Against the advice of his friends, against the entreaties of his family, he constantly refused to leave those who had stood by him in the day of his disgrace and peril. 


He was accustomed to say that 3,000 poor, ignorant, colored Republican voters in that county had stood by him and elected him at the risk of persecution and starvation, and that he had no idea of abandoning them to the Ku Klux Klan. He was determined to stay with them, and either put an end to these outrages or die with the other victims of rebel hate and national apathy: Nearly six months ago, I declared my belief that before the election in August next, the Klan would have killed more men in the state than there would be members to be elected to the legislature. A good beginning has been made toward the fulfillment of this prophecy. 

The following counties have already filled, or nearly so, their respective “quotas:” Jones County, quota full, excess, 1.; Orange County, quota full, excess, 2.; Caswell County, quota full, excess, 3.; Alamance County, quota full, excess, 4;. Chatham County, quota nearly full. Or to state the matter differently, there have been twelve murders in five counties of the district during the past eighteen months by bands of disguised villains. In addition to this, from the best information I can derive, I am of the opinion that in this district alone there have been 1,000 outrages of a less serious nature perpetrated by the same masked fiends. Of course, this estimate is not made from any absolute record, nor is it possible to ascertain with accuracy the entire number of beatings and other outrages which have been perpetrated. 

The uselessness, the utter futility of complaint from the lack of ability in the laws to punish is fully known to all. The danger of making such complaint is also well understood. It is therefore not unfrequently by accident that the outrage is found out, and unquestionably it is frequently absolutely concealed. Thus, a respectable, hardworking white carpenter was working for a neighbor when, accidentally, his shirt was torn and disclosed his back scarred and beaten. The poor fellow begged for the sake of his wife and children that nothing might be said about it as the Klan had threatened to kill him if he disclosed how he had been outraged. Hundreds of cases have come to my notice and that of my solicitor…. 


Men and women come scarred, mangled and bruised and say: “The Ku Klux came to my house last night and beat me almost to death, and my old woman right smart, and shot into the house, ‘bust’ the door down and told me they would kill me if I made complaint,” and the bloody, mangled forms attest the truth of their declarations. On being asked if anyone knew any of the party, it will be ascertained that there was no recognition, or only the most uncertain and doubtful one. In such cases as these, nothing can be done by the court. We have not been accustomed to enter them on record. 

A man of the best standing in Chatham told me that he could count up to 200 and upward in that county. In Alamance County, a citizen in conversation one evening enumerated upward of 50 cases which had occurred within his own knowledge, and in one section of the county. He gave it as his opinion that there had been 200 cases in that county. I have no idea that he exceeded the proper estimate. That was six months ago, and I am satisfied that another hundred would not cover the work done in that time. 

These crimes have been of every character imaginable. Perhaps the most usual has been the dragging of men and women from their beds and beating their naked bodies with hickory switches, or as witnesses in an examination the other day said, “sticks” between a “switch” and a “club.” From 50 to 100 blows is the usual allowance, sometimes 200 and 300 blows are administered. Occasionally, an instrument of torture is owned. Thus, in one case two women, one 74 years old, were taken out, stripped naked and beaten with a paddle, with several holes bored through it. The paddle was about 30 inches long, 3 or 4 inches wide, and 1/4 of an inch thick of oak. Their bodies were so bruised and beaten that they were sickening to behold. They were white women and of good character until the younger was seduced and swore her child to its father. Previous to that and so far as others were concerned, her character was good. 


Again, there is sometimes a fiendish malignity and cunning displayed in the form and character of the outrages. For instance, a colored man was placed astride of a log, and an iron staple driven through his person into the log. In another case, after a band of them had in turn violated a young Negro girl, she was forced into bed with a colored man, their bodies were bound together face-to-face, and the fire from the hearth piled upon them. The KKK rode off and left them with shouts of laughter. Of course, the bed was soon in flames and somehow, they managed to crawl out, though terribly burned and scarred. The house was burned. 

I could give other incidents of cruelty, such as hanging up a boy of nine years old until he was nearly dead, to make him tell where his father was hidden, and beating an old Negress of 103 years old with garden partings because she would not own that she was afraid of the Ku Klux. But it is unnecessary to go into further detail. In this district, I estimate their offenses as follows, in the past ten months: Twelve murders, 9 rapes, 11 arsons, 7 mutilations, ascertained and most of them on record. In some, no identification could be made. 

Four thousand or 5,000 houses have been broken open, and property or persons taken out. In all cases, all arms are taken and destroyed. Seven hundred or 800 persons have been beaten or otherwise maltreated. These, of course, are partly persons living in the houses which were broken into. 


And yet the government sleeps. The poor, disarmed nurses of the Republican Party–those men by whose ballots the Republican Party holds power–who took their lives in their hands when they cast their ballots for U.S. Grant and other officials–all of us who happen to be beyond the pale of the governmental regard must be sacrificed, murdered, scourged, mangled, because some contemptible party scheme might be foiled by doing us justice. I could stand it very well to fight for Uncle Sam, and was never known to refuse an invitation on such an occasion, but this lying down, tied hand and foot with the shackles of the law, to be killed by the very dregs of the rebellion, the scum of the earth, and not allowed either the consolation of fighting or the satisfaction that our “fall” will be noted by the government and protection given to others thereby, is somewhat too hard. 

I am ashamed of the nation that will let its citizens be slain by scores, and scourged by thousands, and offer no remedy or protection. I am ashamed of a state which has not sufficient strength to protect its own officers in the discharge of their duties, nor guarantee the safety of any man’s domicile throughout its length and breadth. I am ashamed of a party which, with the reins of power in its hands, has not nerve or decision enough to arm its own adherents, or to protect them from assassinations at the hands of their opponents. A general who, in time of war, would permit 2,000 or 3,000 of his men to be bushwhacked and destroyed by private treachery even in an enemy’s country without anyone being punished, for it would be worthy of universal execration, and would get it, too. How much more worthy of detestation is a government which, in time of peace, will permit such wholesale slaughter of its citizens? It is simple cowardice, inertness and wholesale demoralization. 

The wholesale slaughter of the war has dulled our nation’s sense of horror at the shedding of blood, and the habit of regarding the South as simply a laboratory where every demagogue may carry on his reconstructionary experiments at will, and not as an integral party of the nation itself, has led our government to shut its eyes to the atrocities of these times. Unless these evils are speedily remedied, I tell you, general, the Republican Party has signed its death warrant. It is a party of cowards or idiots–I don’t care which alternative is chosen. The remedy is in our hands, and we are afraid or too dull to bestir ourselves and use it. 


But you will tell me that Congress is ready and willing to act if it only knew what to do. Like the old Irish woman, it wrings its hands and cries, “O Lawk, O Lawk, if I only knew which way.” And yet this same Congress has the control of the militia and can organize its own force in every county in the United States, and arm more or less of it. This same Congress has the undoubted right to guarantee and provide a Republican Government, and protect every citizen in “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” as well as the power conferred by the XVth Amendment. And yet we suffer and die in peace and murderers walk abroad with the blood yet fresh upon their garments, unharmed, unquestioned and unchecked. Fifty thousand dollars given to good detectives would secure, if well used, a complete knowledge of all this gigantic organization of murderers. In connection with an organized and armed militia, it would result in the apprehension of any number of these thugs en masse, and with blood on their hands. What then is the remedy? 

First: Let Congress give to the U. S. Courts, or to Courts of the States under its own laws, cognizance of this class of crimes, as crimes against the nation, and let it provide that this legislation be enforced. Why not, for instance, make going armed and masked or disguised, or masked or disguised in the nighttime, an act of insurrection or sedition? 

Second: Organize militia, National-State militia is a nuisance, and arm as many as may be necessary in each county to enforce its laws. 


Third: Put detectives at work to get hold of this whole organization. Its ultimate aim is unquestionably to revolutionize the government. If we have not plucked enough for this, why then let us just offer our throats to the knife, emasculate ourselves, and be a nation of self-subjugated slaves at once. 

And now, Abbott, I have but one thing to say to you. I have very little doubt that I shall be one of the next victims. My steps have been dogged for months, and only a good opportunity has been wanting to secure to me the fate which Stephens has just met, and I speak earnestly upon this matter. I feel that I have a right to do so, and a right to be heard as well, and with this conviction I say to you plainly that any member of Congress who, especially if from the South, does not support, advocate and urge immediate, active and thorough measures to put an end to these outrages, and make citizenship a privilege, is a coward, a traitor, or a fool. The time for action has come, and the man who has now only speeches to make over some constitutional scarecrow, deserves to be damned. 

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