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“The truth of history may be utterly distorted and contradicted and changed to any convenient fairy tale that the master of men wish.” 

W.E.B. DuBois, Black Reconstruction in America, 1935

In 1871, in the midst of escalating racial violence that killed up to 30,000 in the post-Civil War South, Congress launched one of the largest investigations in American history. The 1871 KKK Hearings convened under President Ulysses S. Grant revealed a culture of racial terrorism in the former Confederacy. It is still the closest America came to a national reckoning with its racial history and it inspired a war against the Klan that crushed the white supremacist organization for a generation. 

A century and a half after the 1871 KKK hearings we are again in dire need of shared truths on matters of race. This summer, California Rep. Barbara Lee (D) introduced legislation that could serve as a vehicle for a renewed national discussion on race. Lee’s H.R. 100—A United States Commission on Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation—has a growing list of almost 170 co-sponsors, but in this moment of political tension, its success hangs in balance. 

Will the next president follow in Grant’s footsteps and convene the kind of congressional commission that Rep. Barbara Lee has proposed?

The first thing to understand about the 1871 KKK Hearings is their birth from Northern outrage against a defeated but unrepentant South. The Civil War destroyed the Confederacy and slavery but white supremacy didn’t surrender.

In April 1865, after hunting Confederate armies for four years from the Mississippi River to the Chesapeake Bay, Lt. Gen. Ulysses Grant accepted Confederate Gen. Robert Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House, Virginia. Within weeks of Lee’s surrender, the Civil War was over and the South was transformed into occupied territory. 

Following Lee’s surrender, Confederate States of America President Jefferson Davis and his cabinet fled south from Richmond, with Union troops in pursuit, hoping to reach the Trans-Mississippi region and continue the war from Texas. But a month after Lee surrendered, Davis was captured in south-central Georgia, transported to Fort Monroe, Virginia, and declared a “state prisoner.” 

Davis spent two years at Fort Monroe in legal limbo while the government debated what to do with him. In spite of being a traitor to the United States and leading a rebellion that led to the death of 750,000 Americans—not to mention his passion for perpetuating slavery—prominent Americans came to his defense. In the end, men such as New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley and railroad tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt, one of the richest men in America, paid for Davis’ bail. With persistent legal support, Davis left prison in May 1867. By the end of 1868, President Andrew Johnson issued the final of a series of pardons of Confederate supporters. This blanket pardon covered “every person who directly or indirectly participated in the late insurrection or rebellion…with restoration of all rights, privileges, and immunities under the Constitution.” 

With this act, the country bypassed a reckoning with the trauma of centuries of slavery and the meaning of America’s bloodiest conflict. 

Jefferson Davis was never brought to trial, and died peacefully in New Orleans in December 1889, sure in his conviction that the Confederate cause was as just as the American Revolution. Davis’ defiant attitude came to permeate Southern white culture. And during Reconstruction, in response to the growing political power of Blacks and their white supporters, the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist organizations launched a campaign of racial violence that would eventually kill between 20,000 and 30,000 people

It was in this charged atmosphere in 1868 that the Republican war hero Ulysses Grant was inaugurated as the President of the United States. Almost immediately, Grant, with the support of an activist Republican Congress, sought to put down the growing lawlessness in the former Confederacy. 

A key part of the Grant administration’s response to Southern white resistance was the creation of a Congressional commission: the Joint Select Committee to Inquire into the Condition of Affairs in the Late Insurrectionary States. Congress created the joint, bipartisan committee comprised of 21 senators and congressmen who ventured into the South to investigate racial violence. Led by Pennsylvania Sen. John Scott (R), it gathered testimony through public hearings between April 1871 and February 1872 and became popularly known as the Ku Klux Klan Hearings.

Now all but totally unknown to Americans, the KKK Hearings were, as Henry Louis Gates Jr. has pointed out, the closest the United States would come to a truth and reconciliation commission. 

Subcommittees were sent throughout the South and the hearings collected testimony from hundreds of witnesses. The committee’s final report added up to more than 7,000 pages in thirteen volumes. Witnesses ranged from hundreds of freedpeople to Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, former Confederate general and one of the leaders of the Ku Klux Klan. Some witnesses gave testimony voluntarily while others were subpoenaed. Forrest, like many suspected Klan members subpoenaed, denied both knowledge and the very existence of the Klan. 

Testimony, still available online, described how white supremacist organizations targeted Black schools, churches, and businesses as emerging threats to the South’s traditional racial hierarchy. Black political leaders were harassed, and Black women suffered widespread sexual violence. For their part, when they could, Blacks in the South resisted this violence, sometimes organizing vigilante forces and burning buildings and crops in response to attacks. 

The committee findings were open to the public and became a national sensation, reported on by newspapers throughout the country. 

In an echo of today’s polarized environment, the political views of newspapers predetermined their stance toward the hearings. Pro-Southern papers compared the committee hearings to the Spanish Inquisition, while the Northern press generally supported the radical Republicans in Congress.

The hearings were not an academic exercise. Based on the mounting evidence of Southern white vigilante lawlessness, Grant decided to launch a vigorous campaign against the Klan, as authorized by the Enforcement Act of 1871, also known as the Ku Klux Klan Act. It gave the president massive legal power—the right to suspend habeas corpus, declare martial law, and deploy the U.S. military in the former Confederacy to put down terrorist violence. 

Federal troops were sent to the South and 2,000 suspected Klan members were taken prisoner in South Carolina alone. Interracial grand juries issued more than 3,000 indictments and reached more than 1,100 convictions. Thousands of Klan members went into hiding as U.S. troops helped apprehend suspects and enforced the act throughout the South. 

The final report of the Joint Select Committee to Inquire into the Condition of Affairs in the Late Insurrectionary State was made public in 1872. The Republican majority opinion called for strengthening the rule of law, stating, “The race so recently emancipated…ought not to be, and we feel assured will not be, left hereafter without protection against the hostilities and sufferings it has endured in the past, as long as the legal and constitutional powers of the Government are adequate to afford it.” 

The committee’s minority report, issued by its Democratic members in February 1872, blamed the turmoil in the South on, “Millions of white people…put at the mercy of the semi-barbarous Negroes of the South,” adding that, “The vilest white people, both from the North and the South…have been constituted the leaders of this black horde.” It warned ominously: “The present condition of things in the South cannot last.” 

And indeed, conditions did change in the South, albeit temporarily. By the end of 1872, the South experienced a brief period of interracial democracy. The Act, supported by the testimony of the hearings, eliminated the Klan for a generation. 

This summer—almost exactly a century and a half later—California Rep. Barbara Lee introduced H.R. 100, which is intended, “to properly acknowledge, memorialize, and be a catalyst for progress toward jettisoning the belief in a hierarchy of human value…and permanently eliminating persistent racial inequities.” 

It has been integrated into the 2020 Democratic Party Platform which states, “We…will establish a national commission to examine the lasting economic effects of slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and racially discriminatory federal policies on income, wealth, educational, health, and employment outcomes; to pursue truth and promote racial healing; and to study reparations.”

H.R. 100 has a growing list of almost 170 cosponsors in the House, but so far, all of them are Democrats. That constitutes a formidable challenge. History demonstrates that successful truth and reconciliation commissions involve all sides of the conflict, as the 1871 hearings did.

Many experts on transitional justice agree that the United States is experiencing a unique moment suited to the convening of a truth and reconciliation commission like the one Lee is proposing. “We will never get any kind of meaningful reconciliation in American society…until we meaningfully and publicly, and officially, deal with our past,” says Colleen Murphy, an expert on transitional justice and law professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. A professor of Africana Studies at Cornell University and philosopher, Olufemi Taiwo, agrees: “It’s ultimately a question of what kind of people we are, what kind of society we want to be,” adding, “That’s why it goes to the very founding of this country and what it claims to offer the world.” 

Formidable political challenges face Lee’s proposal—foremost among them ensuring that the commission is bipartisan. But in spite of the challenges, history suggests that such a process might be a prerequisite to enhanced national cohesion. South Africa and other nations provide examples of nations that have organized truth and reconciliation commissions, but if we are looking for a useful American precedent that made a real difference, the 1871 KKK hearings are one place to begin.

Andrew Wainer (@AndrewWainer) is Director, Policy Research with Save the Children USA. His research and analysis has appeared in the peer-reviewed journals Development in Practice and International Migration and in publications including the Wall Street Journal, the Stanford Social Innovation Review, The Guardian, and The Atlantic.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views or positions of any organization or employer.