October 27th, 2016
Until 1896, not a single Election Day passed in the United States without someone getting killed at the polls
Most Americans have forgotten how rough our elections used to be. But early in the republic, political violence was the norm, not the exception. “Until 1896, not a single Election Day passed in the United States without someone getting killed at the polls,” historian Jill Lepore writes in the New Yorker.
The most notable period of election-related violence came during Reconstruction, the Northern effort to rebuild the South after the Civil War and empower black citizens. The postwar attempt by black leaders to organize for elections and political participation directly led to the rise of groups like the Ku Klux Klan.
The Klan itself was founded in Pulaski, Tennessee — a town that was, at the time, notable for having a relatively wealthy and politically connected black population. Initially, the Klan wasn’t especially violent, serving as more of a social club for former Confederate soldiers. But as time went on and the white population grew more concerned about black social power, the Klan took matters into its own hands.
By the 1868 presidential election, the Klan was regularly intimidating Pulaski’s prominent black residents, showing up at their homes and threatening them with harm if they asserted themselves politically. The goal of this violent turn was to destroy Pulaski’s black civil society, to make sure that black people wouldn’t be able to get to the polls in great numbers or hold political office.
“It becomes clear to [whites] that they’re not going to be allowed to rebuild their own power structure,” says Elaine Parsons, a historian at Duquesne University and the author of Ku-Klux: The Birth of the Klan during Reconstruction. “They can see black groups mobilizing, and so they’re concerned that they’re building up a civic infrastructure.”
This intimidation wave evolved into the South-wide campaign of terrorist violence and murder, most notably lynchings, the group is remembered for.