This Day in History: April 20, 1871

Ebony Edwards-Ellis
2 min readApr 20, 2021

The Civil Rights Act of 1871 destroyed the first incarnation of the KKK.

Every American over the age of ten know the abbreviation KKK stands for Ku Klux Klan, a white supremacist group founded in Tennessee by a former Confederates in 1865. Starting off as secret fraternal organization, the KKK morphed into a paramilitary organization that murdered and intimidated African-Americans and their white Republican allies throughout the American South. By the beginning of the 1870’s, their actions had successfully suppressed black and white Republican voters throughout the South; in Louisiana and Georgia, predominantly Republican districts voted overwhelmingly for Horatio Seymour, Ulysses Grant’s Democratic opponent in the 1868 election.

The Klan’s actions provoked backlash — even from Southern Democrats who, seeking the end of Reconstruction, felt that Klan violence would be used to justify the continuing oversight of the South by the federal government. In 1870, a federal grand jury officially designated the Klan as a terrorist organization. In February of the next year, Benjamin Butler, a Union army veteran and a congressman from Massachusetts introduced The Ku Klux Klan Act which gave the president unilateral authority to suspend habeas corpus and send federal troops to areas blighted by Klan violence. Subsequent enforcement of the legislation led to the arrest and convictions of hundreds of Klansmen. By the mid-1870’s, the first incarnation of the Klan had faded away.

Although The Supreme Court eventually ruled that some provisions of the law were unconstitutional, parts of the law remain on the books to this day, one hundred and fifty years after its passage. In fact, the extant provisions are now being used to sue Donald Trump over his role in January’s deadly uprising at the United States Capitol.

Recent events have shown that America has come full circle — or, more accurately, that it never truly resolved its issues with racially motivated voter disenfranchisement. And white supremacy, infinitely malleable, never stopped being a problem. Like a rapidly mutating virus, it always stays two steps ahead of the people with the will to permanently eradicate it.

To worsen the crisis, violent white supremacists can now use social media to propagate their message, giving them a reach that their predecessors could not have imagined. Quicker and safer transportation, nearly instantaneous long-distance communication, digitized radicalization and recruitment, increasing decentralization of hate groups and “lone wolves”, and deadlier guns only make today’s white supremacists more dangerous.

America is currently at an inflection point. We have two options — cut off violent white supremacists at the knees once and for all or spend another one hundred and fifty years fighting and losing the same battles.



Ebony Edwards-Ellis

Author of "Former First Lady" and "Memoir of a Royal Consort." Twitter provocateur, aspiring shut-in, and newly minted Roosevelt Islander.