Violence against blacks in Northeast Georgia led to the first convictions in the state under the Ku Klux Klan Act aimed at trying to outlaw the organization.
Congress had passed the law in 1871, but it apparently hadn’t been enforced in Georgia until 1883 in Banks and Jackson counties.
Raids on black citizens might have started in Banks County after a black man either brushed against or pushed a white woman on a road. Others said the attacks were the result of blacks accumulating property in the area to the consternation of whites.
At any rate, mobs of masked men nightly began to attack cabins where blacks lived, dragging the residents out and whipping them. In one incident, the mobs broke down the door of one cabin, struck a resident with a pistol, then dragged him out, disrobed him and administered 175 licks on his back with a hickory stick. One black woman endured 25 lashes each from 11 men.
Another black man was ordered out of his home, made to take his bed with him and told to get on his way. A young boy was whipped, and another woman was beaten “because she didn’t keep her cotton clean.”
In Jackson County, 50 masked men whipped a black man and shot him in the mouth. Raids also took place in Oglethorpe County, and bands of marauders carrying torches at midnight would circle people’s homes to scare them. Some of the victims died.
The terrorism got so bad that many blacks abandoned their homes and crops, some of them ending up in Hall County. Those who remained at home were sleeping with shotguns and axes.
The Gainesville Eagle was outraged. “It is high time that this class of assassins are taught to know that Georgia is living under civilized statute laws and that lawless marauders are no longer tolerated,” it wrote.
Some Banks and Jackson counties’ citizens also were indignant, pointing fingers at each other, denying that the raiders came from their counties. But they finally got together at Burns Store in Maysville one night to decry the terrorism and plan to help law enforcement capture the Klan members.
Yet, there were some who were more than sympathetic. Said the Banner-Watchman of Athens: “There is no such thing as the KKK in Georgia and hasn’t been since the first two years after the close of the (Civil) War.” It dismissed the night raids as an organized band of “regulators” to protect women and children. The KKK saved Georgia and other Southern states, it wrote. “All honor to this band of regulators,” which it said was driven by Northern oppression.
A Banks County grand jury indicted eight of the perpetrators after the victims stripped down to show the jurors the scars left by the beatings. But the cases ended up in federal court because of the Ku Klux Klan Act and because the incidents seemed to be part of a conspiracy against minorities. All eight suspects, four of whom were from the same family, were convicted and sentenced to two years in an Albany, N.Y., federal prison and a $500 fine just before Christmas 1883.
Five had admitted their guilt, but a ringleader showed no remorse. When interviewed on his way to prison in New York, he said, “I ain’t ashamed of what I done.” But he and others denied they were members of the KKK, saying the mobs were acting on their own as individuals rather than part of an organized group.
The U.S. Supreme Court had upheld the constitutionality of the Ku Klux Klan Act, but part of it was ruled unconstitutional in 1882. That might have opened the door to the Klan’s uprising in Georgia and other Southern states in the months following. Terrorism also occurred in South Carolina and Tennessee, birthplace of the KKK.
The Athens newspaper contended the violence wasn’t a federal problem and that the convictions of the eight men were a usurpation of the rights of the states.
The Klan wasn’t as visible for a while, but beatings and lynchings continued to be a problem in the South all the way into the 1940s. The organization has been active off and on since, mostly staging protest parades during the civil rights debates of the 1960s and beyond.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times and can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA 30501. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com/johnny.