Ku Klux Klan Act

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Ku Klux Klan Act

The Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 (ch. 22, 17 Stat. 13 [codified as amended at 18 U.S.C.A. § 241, 42 U.S.C.A. §§ 1983, 1985(3), and 1988]), also called the Civil Rights Act of 1871 or the Force Act of 1871, was one of several important Civil Rights Acts passed by Congress during Reconstruction, the period following the Civil War when the victorious northern states attempted to create a new political order in the South. The act was intended to protect African Americans from violence perpetrated by the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), a white supremacist group.

In March 1871, President ulysses s. grant requested from Congress legislation that would address the problem of KKK violence, which had grown steadily since the group's formation in 1866. Congress responded on April 20, 1871, with the passage of the Ku Klux Klan Act, originally introduced as a bill "to enforce the provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment and for other purposes." Section 1 of the act covered enforcement of the Fourteenth Amendment and was later codified, in part, at 42 U.S.C.A. § 1983. Section 2 of the act, codified at 42 U.S.C.A. § 1985(3), provided civil and criminal penalties intended to deal with conspiratorial violence of the kind practiced by the Klan. Both sections of the act were intended to give federal protection to Fourteenth Amendment rights that were regularly being violated by private individuals as opposed to the state.

In addition, the Ku Klux Klan Act gave the president power to suspend the writ of Habeas Corpus in order to fight the KKK. President Grant used this power only once, in October 1871, in ten South Carolina counties experiencing high levels of Klan Terrorism. The act also banned KKK and other conspiracy members from serving on juries.

The Republicans who framed the Ku Klux Klan Act intended it to provide a federal remedy for private conspiracies of the sort practiced by the KKK against African Americans and others. As had become all too apparent by 1871, local and state courts were ineffective in prosecuting Klan violence. Local and state law enforcement officials, including judges, were often sympathetic to the KKK or were subject to intimidation by the group, as were trial witnesses. The Ku Klux Klan Act would allow victims of Klan violence to take their case to a federal court, where, it was supposed, they would receive a fairer trial.The act, like other Civil Rights laws from the Reconstruction era, sparked considerable legal debate. Its detractors claimed that the law improperly expanded federal jurisdiction to areas of Criminal Law better left to the states. The Supreme Court took this view in 1883 when it struck down the criminal provisions of the act's second section on the ground that protecting individuals from private conspiracies was a state and not federal function (United States v. Harris, 106 U.S. 629, 1 S. Ct. 601, 27 L. Ed. 290). This and other rulings stripped the Ku Klux Klan Act of much of its power. Like many other civil rights laws from its era, it went largely unenforced in succeeding decades.

The remaining civil provisions of the act were later codified under 42 U.S.C.A. § 1985(3), where they have been referred to as the conspiracy statute. These provisions hold, in part, that when two or more persons "conspire or go in disguise on the highway or the premises of another, for the purpose of depriving … any person or class of persons of the Equal Protection of the law," they may be sued by the injured parties. The civil provisions, or § 1985(3), remained generally unused until the 1971 U.S. Supreme Court decision Griffin v. Breckenridge, 403 U.S. 88, 91 S. Ct. 1790, 29 L. Ed. 2d 338. In Griffin, the Court reaffirmed the original intention of § 1985(3) and ruled that the statute may allow a civil remedy for certain private conspiracies. The Griffin case concerned a 1966 incident in Mississippi in which a group of white men stopped a car out of suspicion that one of its three African–American occupants was a civil rights worker. The whites proceeded to beat and threaten the African Americans. The Court upheld one victim's claim that, under § 1985(3), the whites had engaged in a conspiracy to deny him the equal protection of the laws of the United States and Mississippi.

In making its decision, the Court was careful to restrict § 1985 claims to those involving actions motivated by "some racial, or perhaps otherwise class-based, invidiously discriminatory animus." This standard meant that the conspirators in question had to be motivated against a class of persons, not a particular political or social issue. By creating this standard, the Court sought to prevent § 1985(3) from becoming a "general federal tort law" that would cover every type of private conspiracy.

Since Griffin, the Court has expressed misgivings about expanding the types of classes protected by the statute. Using the Griffin standard, the Court later ruled in United Brotherhood of Carpenters & Joiners v. Scott, 463 U.S. 825, 103 S. Ct. 3352, 77 L. Ed. 2d 1049 (1983), that economic or commercial groups could not be considered a class protected by the law. In that case, the Court rejected a claim by nonunion workers who had been attacked by union workers at job sites.

During the 1980s and 1990s, lower federal courts upheld the use of § 1985(3) against antiabortion protesters who blockaded family planning clinics with large demonstrations and disruptions. In one ruling, a federal district court held that an antiabortion group had conspired to violate the right to interstate travel of women seeking to visit family planning clinics (NOW v. Operation Rescue, 726 F. Supp. 1483 [E.D. Va. 1989]).

However, in a 1993 case, Bray v. Alexandria Women's Health Clinic, 506 U.S. 263, 113 S. Ct. 753, 122 L. Ed. 2d 34, the Supreme Court ruled that § 1985(3) could not be used against antiabortion protesters. The Court held that women seeking Abortion cannot be considered a class under the terms of the law.

Further readings

Brown, Bruce. 1991. "Injunctive Relief and Section 1985(3): Anti-Abortion Blockaders Meet the 'Ku Klux Klan Act.'" Buffalo Law Review 39 (fall).

Gormley, Ken. 1985. "Private Conspiracies and the Constitution: A Modern Vision of 42 U.S.C. Section 1985(3)." Texas Law Review 64 (November).

Hall, Kermit L. 1984. "Political Power and Constitutional Legitimacy: The South Carolina Ku Klux Klan Trials, 1871–1872." Emory Law Journal 33 (fall).

Mcmurtry, Joy Hollingsworth, and Patti S. Pennock. 1995. "Ending the Violence: Applying the Ku Klux Klan Act, RICO, and FACE to the Abortion Controversy." Land and Water Law Review 30.


Civil Rights Acts; Civil Rights Cases; Civil Rights Movement; Jim Crow Laws.

West's Encyclopedia of American Law, edition 2. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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