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The Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 (aka the Civil Rights Act of 1871)

What began as the Ku Klux Klan Act is now more appropriately known as the Civil Rights Act of 1871. This bit of legislation saw the light of day when the American Civil War was over and the country was on the mend. Healing had begun and the goal was to move on as a united nation that would leave the divisiveness that caused the Civil War behind. While in the past brother may have picked up a weapon against brother, the goal was now to have brothers become one another’s keepers.

It was in this atmosphere that the workings of the Ku Klux Klan were seen as a direct threat to this unity. In the Deep South the Klan was known for the unspeakable acts it still perpetrated against the southern African Americans yet because of stereotypes that were still strong within the population and also the elected officials, there was not much done to protect the citizens from racially motivated abuse and mayhem.

The Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 sought to rectify this shameful situation by giving civil rights protection to African Americans who lived in the area that was under the control of the Klan and its sympathizers. It is interesting to note that the Act does not give any newfangled rights that were not already in existence. What it did change, however, was the availability of legal remedies. While in the past the African American living in the South had to content with mutely standing by while crosses were burned in front of their homes, women were pelted with rotten eggs, and children were intimidated by the men in the white sheets, suddenly there was a legal mandate to prosecute these criminal activities that appeared to hold an entire region hostage.

No longer forced to be legally silent, the African American now had the doors to the state and federal courts flung wide open and was able to bring grievances to a judge and jury. The creation of a legal liability that permitted injured parties to sue the perpetrators suddenly turned the tables and emboldened a group of citizens that thus far were considered silent victims.

Immediately following the passage of the Act, there appeared to be little legal effect. Victimized citizens were still cowering in fear, and the idea of presenting their grievances in a courtroom that may have been presided over by the Klan’s Grand Wizard himself – or pleading to a jury that may have been loyal Klan supporters – held little if any appeal. Yet what the Act did accomplish was the setting of legal precedence that would spring into action in the year 1961 when Monroe v. Pape, 365 U.S. 167 became the Supreme Court decision that would stand the legal system on its head and has shaped our understanding of civil rights and the legal remedies that exist ever since.

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