“They pulled the pillow-slip over my head and told me if I took it off they would shoot me. They carried me out and whipped me powerful.”
Rep. Job Stevenson asked the victim, Mervin Givens (40), if he knew his assailants. Yes, Givens swore, the men who tore the shirt off of his back and whipped him, naked, in the dark of the rainy night because he’d voted Republican were boys he’d grown up with. Rep. Philadelph Van Trump asked Givens if he’d tried to have charges brought against the men afterwards, and the witness said he did not because he was afraid for his life.
This was July of 1871. The Joint Select Committee to Inquire into the Condition of Affairs in the Late Insurrectionary States had traveled to Spartanburg, SC to take testimony from victims of the rampant terrorism in parts of the South after the Civil War. Informally known as the “Klan Hearings,” the Congressional committee took testimony from those who were victims or had knowledge of the violence taking place and of local groups known as the Ku Klux Klan.
In Atlanta, GA, Maria Carter (28) described men coming in the night to terrorize her family. They whipped her husband and held a gun to her head, threatening her while her almost three-week-old baby lay crying nearby. Afterwards, she heard them at the next house where they lashed another man and woman. The neighbors’ screams mingled with curses from their assailants, and in the morning, Carter said, the place looked like they’d been slaughtering hogs from the blood.
In six states, Congressmen and their staff members took testimony like this. The stories were harrowing and demonstrated a pervasive effort to repress black voting and intimidate former slaves to keep them from pursuing the freedoms that should come with their citizenship. Scarred emotionally and physically, the victims knew local law enforcement would not protect them; they were abandoned by the law to these terrible horrors.
The terrorists won — they drove black voters from the polls, into second class citizenship, and to a constant state of anxiety about their safety and that of their children, families, and communities. The violence did not stop with its success, however; it continued for another hundred years. Sometimes, it came at the hands of the KKK, and other times, it was various “concerned citizens” and individuals participating in lynchings or race riots or isolated acts of brutality.
Over this violent century, a legacy of fear passed from generation to generation, incorporated into the thinking and culture of black citizens. This drove them to practice behaviors that would assist their survival. Here was the opposite of rash hysteria and emotional outbursts. They practiced deference and taught their children the same. They built their own commercial and communication networks for mutual support and hid their anger and bitterness, lest it prompt more wrath. They sought solace in their churches and kept a studied, genial mask turned to the white community. They were careful, measured in response, and acutely aware of the mammoth injustice that was their daily burden — extensions, really, of their response to the horror of slavery.
The violent repression of black Americans — particularly in the south — was clandestine but not secret. From these first days of freedom, there was testimony and evidence of the cruel intimidation — and of the terror with which black Americans lived. No one could be ignorant of it. White America intentionally turned a blind eye to it, leaving their black neighbors to shoulder all the pain and misery that fear and powerlessness forced on them — and to find ways to make life fulfilling and circumvent their situations the best they could to bring some value to their menaced lives.