Zirui Chen–The Great North Carolina Klan Trials: Habeas Corpus, Due Process, and the Southern Redemption of the Fourteenth Amendment, 1870-1871 (Focus on Undergraduate Scholarship)

Zirui Chen

Zirui (Jerry) Chen graduated from Columbia University with degrees in history and political science. He is the recipient of the Chanler Historical Prize, awarded to Columbia College seniors who submit the best essay on a topic dealing with the history of civil government in America. He is also an incoming J.D.-Ph.D. candidate at Harvard University and Harvard Law School.

Ed. Note: This piece is part of The Docket’s initiative, A Focus on Undergraduate Scholarship, which aims to spotlight outstanding legal history projects being done by undergraduate students.

The Origins of This Project

This thesis project began as a term paper for Professor Stephanie McCurry’s Postwars and Reconstruction Seminar. The readings and discussion focus on two main themes: Vengeance and Justice and Memory and History. As part of the seminar, we studied the legal history of Ku Klux Klan trials in South Carolina. I became immediately curious why a similar survey of North Carolina did not seem to exist, even though it was where the first major federal KKK trials took place. Last summer, I was able to travel to North Carolina and conduct archival research at UNC, Duke, and the State Archives, which helped me answer many of the lingering questions in the term paper. Then, under the guidance of both Professors Stephanie McCurry and Anna Danziger Halperin, I was able to complete this year-long senior thesis project.

“The Great North Carolina Klan Trials:” Abstract

            In June 1870, William W. Holden, the Republican Governor of North Carolina, organized a militia under the command of Col. George Kirk to suppress Klan violence in Alamance and Caswell Counties. Having suspended the writ of habeas corpus, Holden authorized Kirk to make arrests without probable cause and try the detained Klan members in a military court. In response, twenty-one accused Klansmen petitioned the federal court for a writ of habeas corpus.

            In a stunning co-option of the Fourteenth Amendment’s language, U.S. District Judge George W. Brooks sided with the alleged Klan members. Holding that the newly passed Fourteenth Amendment equally applied to White men, Judge Brooks discharged all of them on the ground that they have been denied liberty “without due process of law.” Commended by conservatives for “vindicating the cause of civil rights,” Judge Brooks’ decision not only delivered Democrats a resounding victory at the polls that fall, effectively ending Reconstruction in North Carolina, but also opened the jurisprudential possibility of reinterpreting and “redeeming” the Reconstruction Amendments in a conservative way.[1] As the “first time the Fourteenth Amendment…was invoked to protect white men,” the case cleared the way for a series of Supreme Court decision—Slaughterhouse, Cruikshank, and eventually Plessy v. Ferguson—that largely nullified the intended effects of the Fourteenth Amendment.[2]

            My thesis studies the three attempts at judicial enforcement against the Klan in North Carolina: the State Supreme Court’s decision in July 1870, amidst Holden’s militia campaign; the Klansmen’s appeal to the U.S. District Court in August 1870; and the 1871 federal Klan trials in the U.S. Circuit Court. I ask the bold and potentially significant questions: is it possible that the first use of the Fourteenth Amendment in a U.S. court was to help Klansmen elude justice?

            Inspired by Lou Falkner Williams’ seminal work The Great South Carolina Ku Klux Klan Trials, this thesis argues that the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment was challenged and co-opted by conservatives in the South from its very inception. In fact, it took less than two years after the Fourteenth Amendment’s ratification for North Carolina Democrats to reinterpret it for protecting the Klan. The redemption of the Fourteenth Amendment, from a reading of substantive equality to one of formal equality, I argue, was an important element to the redemption of the South. 

This thesis also charts a new direction. Firstly, the Klan trial literature has traditionally studied the prosecutors, but not their opponents. However, drawing my sources from private notes, memos, and correspondence of the Klansmen’s lawyers in North Carolina, I show that federal and state actors on both sides coordinated their efforts and experimented with new legal strategies. Additionally, this thesis takes a “bottom up” approach to legal history, analyzing how local politics and legal culture shaped case law. By studying Fourteenth Amendment cases rising on the federal docket from lower courts, cases that previously have “not received even the minimal scholarly treatment,” this thesis paints a much different—and much bleaker—picture of constitutional law in Reconstruction.[3]

[1] William H. Battle, A Report of the Proceedings in the Habeas Corpus Cases (Raleigh: Nichols & Gorman, 1870), 101; Raleigh Sentinel, Aug. 27, 1870, North Carolina Newspapers Collections, Digital NC.

[2] James A. Padgett, “Reconstruction Letters from North Carolina,” The North Carolina Historical Review 21, no. 3 (1942): 237, note 24.

[3] Cornelia Gordon, “No Justice Within the Law: The Murder of Wyatt Outlaw and its Absence from the Legal-Historical Record” (Duke University Law School, 2015), 7.