Chalfant: Sedalia newspaper denied Klan existence

May 15, 2013

In the years after the Civil War, the Radical Republicans, a group of extremists who wished to punish the South for seceding from the Union during the war, dominated the U. S. Congress. They overrode attempts to reincorporate the South into the Union in the gentle manner advocated by former President Lincoln and ultimately stationed federal troops in the states that had seceded in order to enforce new laws concerning the newly freed slaves.

Federal troops were not stationed in Missouri after the war, but the state’s General Assembly was controlled by the Radical Republicans, who demanded that ex-Confederates swear loyalty to the U. S. government and denied certain occupations to those who refused. Some harassed the Southern sympathizers, threatening to confiscate their land and property.

Sedalia’s city government was also controlled by Radical Republicans. George R. Smith, mayor from 1864 through 1865, was a Radical Republican and remained a strong force in local politics. Bacon Montgomery, perhaps the most radical of the Radical Republicans, served as Sedalia’s mayor from 1868 through 1869.

Newspapers at the time typically represented the views of a specific political party. In Sedalia, the Bazoo and the Democrat strongly voiced the views of the Democratic Party, then made up largely of Southern sympathizers. The Eagle and Eagle Times represented the views of the Radical Republicans. Editors battled over political issues with inflammatory articles attacking the other party, its views, and each other.

As the Ku Klux Klan developed in central Missouri, local editors focused on its presence in ways that reflected their political biases.

In 1871, President U. S. Grant, aware of the violent actions of the Klan and pressured by former Union General Benjamin “Beast” Butler, signed the Ku Klux Klan Act that attempted to shut down the Klan. The act had some effect, and the Klan’s activities declined somewhat during Grant’s second administration.

The Klan was active in Pettis County and the surrounding areas in the years after the war. Former Confederates resented the laws that had freed the slaves, gave them the status of citizens, and allowed African-Americans the right to vote and run for office.

 The strongly Democratic Sedalia Bazoo responded to the presence of the Klan by denying its existence. In 1871, as Congress debated passing the Ku Klux Klan Act, the Bazoo launched a series of articles denouncing members of Congress, the president, and local Radical Republicans.

For example, in May, Bazoo editor J. West Goodwin printed a comment on a court case appearing in Sedalia’s police court. The case involved two young men who “impersonated Ku Klux” by going to Lincolnville, Sedalia’s black neighborhood, and attempted to force the black residents from their homes.

Goodwin implied that the men were not really Klansmen and that their activities were not really harmful, even though the men did use the threat of violence to intimidate the black families. The men were guilty, but Goodwin praised the court for acquitting the men, and denounced the residents of Lincolnville who were “armed to the teeth to repel the invasion” by the whites intent on harming them.

The Bazoo accused the Radical Republican Sedalia Times and the Eagle Times of reporting any act of violence as the actions of the Klan, and noted that a Times reporter should have been in court in order to report on the young men’s actions as an example of “Klan outrage.”

In another instance, when a man from Johnson County was beaten by two men who opposed his marriage, the Bazoo suggested that if the young man had not been a former Confederate soldier, the Times would have claimed the event was the work of the Klan.

 Whether the Times exaggerated the Klan’s activities or not did not seem to matter to the Bazoo, which continued to deny that the Klan even existed.

 Goodwin went so far as to try to frighten local residents by claiming that false evidence of the Klan in Pettis County would result in Grant rescinding the right of habeas corpus and stationing federal troops in Pettis County.