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Reexamining the Reconstruction era with Kidada Williams: podcast and transcript

Chris Hayes speaks with author and professor Kidada E. Williams about her new book and the impact of racial trauma on future generations.

The Reconstruction era is a pivotal point in our nation’s history and often misconstrued. What many hoped to be a time of promise and racial equality after the Civil War turned into a period marked by terror and violence against Black people and widespread efforts to undermine and stop Black progress. In her new book, “I Saw Death Coming: A History of Terror and Survival in the War Against Reconstruction,” Professor Kidada E. Williams of Wayne State University reexamines this period and shares the stories of those who fought against oppression. Williams joins WITHpod to discuss her new book and the impact of racial trauma on future generations.

Note: This is a rough transcript — please excuse any typos.

Kidada Williams: Ex-Confederates didn't let go of slavery lightly. They did what they could to hold on to it. And so, African-Americans largely had to fight their way out of bondage. They had to fight to escape the people who had been holding them in slavery. And so as they escape, they are enduring a lot of violence. There are a lot of people who were killed.

Chris Hayes: Hello and welcome to "Why Is This Happening?" with me your host, Chris Hayes.

Last week on the podcast, as I'm speaking to you here and maybe weeks later, as you listen, we had Dahlia Lithwick on about her fantastic book, “Lady Justice.” And one of the chapters in that book, which we discussed, was a chapter about a litigator named Robbie Kaplan and another one named Karen Dunn, who are two very elite high-powered lawyers, who brought this incredible case in Charlottesville in which they sued the organizers of the Unite the Right rally under a federal law from 1871 that actually really hadn't been used in a very long time. That's called the KKK Act, the Klan Act, also known as the Enforcement Act.

And the basic law under which they sued, which was passed by a Reconstruction Era Congress, gives people who are on the receiving end of threats, intimidation and violence by organized white supremacists, a private right of action to enforce their civil rights through lawsuits, through federal lawsuits. Now, why would such a law be necessary? The reason such a law was necessary is that when it was passed in 1871, in the wake of the Civil War, the KKK had organized and grown and was essentially using mob violence, threats of mob violence, extortion, intimidation, public showings of force to undo the gains of black Americans, freedmen in the language at that time, in the wake of the Civil War.

And so powerful and insidious, and so implacable that Congress passed these acts called the Klan Act or the Enforcement Act, which is kind of an amazing term, right? The Enforcement Act means like to enforce the law. The law, of course, being the 13th, 14th, 15th Amendments that had granted to the freedmen, full rights and equality as citizens on an equal footing with every other citizen of the country. And yet, of course, the white planter class, much of the white folks in the South, though not all, we should be very clear, and ex-Confederate soldiers and ex-Confederate generals just refused to accept it.

That period of time is one of the most important chapters in American history. It's something I return to on the show over and over and over again. It's something I'm obsessed with. And the reason I'm obsessed with it is it was a moment of incredible radical progress, radical promise, radical vision for a true multiracial society of equality and dignity that was destroyed by essentially a campaign of terrorist violence, first and foremost, and then a political campaign that managed to pressure federal troops into leaving, that allowed the old slaver class to basically re-establish itself and reassert racial hierarchy.

There is a remarkable new book about this period that tells the story of a period that is very untold. And there's a bunch of really interesting reasons why it's untold, which will get into the conversation. It's by Kidada Williams. She's an associate professor in the Department of History at Wayne State University. She's the author of numerous books. But her latest one, the book that we'll be talking about today is called “I Saw Death Coming: A History of Terror and Survival in the War Against Reconstruction.” It will be out in January 2023. Professor Williams, it's great to have you on.

Kidada Williams: Thank you so much for having me.

Chris Hayes: I thought maybe we can start with the first scene of the book because I think it paints a picture, and then we can step back and go into it. But just to give people a visceral lived experience of what this meant, what this terror looked like, so maybe you could just tell us about how you opened the book.

Kidada Williams: So I opened the book with the story of a man named Edward Crosby, and he steps out in the middle of the night to get his child a drink of water. And so this is 1869, 1870, Mississippi, just outside of Aberdeen. And he feels and hears this thunder, this rumble. And he looks closer. It's in the middle of the night. And he sees a throng of white men on horseback, armed, draped in cloth, and the horses are draped in cloth coming.

And they're coming directly for him. They're bearing down on his house. And his wife says she hears and feels it, too, “What is that?” And he says, “I reckon it's the Ku Klux.” And so they take precautions. He runs and hides because they are there to do him harm. And so --

Chris Hayes: Goes into the smokehouse, I love that detail.

Kidada Williams: Yes. Yes.

Chris Hayes: Like, it's just the last place that you could hide. He goes in the smokehouse.

Kidada Williams: Right. Split second thinking, and it's the thing that saves his life.

Chris Hayes: And what does the Klan come and do?

Kidada Williams: So they are coming to punish him for trying to vote in the election. And he had already been warned by his former enslaver that he better not try to vote. And Edward, at the time, promised and said, “Okay, I won't try to vote.” But he also realized that his ability to exercise his freedom would be dependent on him actually following through on his need to vote for people who are going to protect his rights.

Chris Hayes: So he's being punished. He manages to escape here. It's sort of a methodological question, but it ends up being an enormous one in terms of the history of this period. How do we get his story?

Kidada Williams: He ultimately ends up testifying before Congress. And members of Congress had been receiving all of these reports of attacks on African-Americans, especially newly freed African-Americans who are trying to make their freedom real. They're not doing anything to harm anyone, other than following through on what's expected of them in terms of transitioning from slavery to freedom. And so they hold these hearings and they invite African-Americans, people who had been targeted to testify. And that's how Edward Crosby is among about 200 African-Americans who show up.

Chris Hayes: So these are called the Klan hearings. And it's field hearings, right? They go down to the south to take this testimony?

Kidada Williams: Yes. They go down to Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, Georgia and the Carolinas to conduct these testimonies, to hear from the people what's happening on the ground.

Chris Hayes: How did you find your way to this topic?

Kidada Williams: I had always been interested in survivors of racist violence. And I found Reconstruction to be this really fascinating period. It was the period that I didn't learn much about in school, other than that story that it failed. And as I continued looking closer at the history, I realized that it didn't fail.

And because I was interested in testimonies of survivors of violence, I went and looked at these records, and I was able to see a very different story than the one we had been taught in school and the one that a lot of historians had told.

Chris Hayes: And that story is what would come to be known as the Dunning School and the Lost Cause story. And I talked about this in podcast before, but it's worth sketching a little bit of the historiography here because it's extremely relevant. There's a school that comes out of Columbia University, a bunch of white historians in the 1920s called Dunning School, that cement a certain narrative of Reconstruction. What is that narrative?

Kidada Williams: The narrative is that Reconstruction failed. And the subtext of that narrative is that black people didn't make the most of their freedom. That's part of the Lost Cause of the Civil War. But it extends to the history of Reconstruction, which essentially says, “We abolished slavery. We gave black people rights and freedom, and they squandered it.” That's the story that ex-Confederates told. That's the story of the Dunning School. And that's the story that many of us still receive, different parts of, in K to 12 today.

Chris Hayes: That story is also about corruption, right? I mean, that ends up being a central part. And I think one of the things that helps it, right, is that there's a kernel of truth, which is that many Reconstruction governments were relatively corrupt, but of course, all the governments were corrupt, too.

Like, it just ends up being this sort of conveniently, it's like, well, sure, yes, you could absolutely point to examples of corruption of black majority South Carolina lower state legislature, right? But you can, of course, point to examples corruption, every white government throughout the south.

So it becomes this kind of cudgel, the story about these corrupt governments. And then, of course, Birth of a Nation, which is really the only pop cultural representation of the period makes this quite explicit in its famously outrageously racist way.

Kidada Williams: So it absolutely does that. And I think one of the things that's very clear is that the corruption didn't end when black people were driven out of office.

Chris Hayes: Right. Exactly. Yes, right.

Kidada Williams: When they were disfranchised, right?

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Kidada Williams: It didn't start with them. It didn't end when they were driven out of office.

Chris Hayes: Exactly.

Kidada Williams: But it does become a convenient narrative to justify stripping black people of their rights and installing a new system of racial apartheid that we get with Jim Crow.

Chris Hayes: What role does the Klan and Klan violence play in the Dunning School, Lost Cause, redeemer narrative of Reconstruction?

Kidada Williams: Essentially, what they say is that they were subjected to the horrifying realities of black people ruling over them, and they had no choice but to defend their honor by forming groups like the Klan to rise up, to overthrow these governments, so they can install a better way of life, or they could restore the old way of life that had existed in the South.

Chris Hayes: Now, of course, there is an incredibly important counternarrative that’s written by W.E.B. Du Bois in Black Reconstruction, one of the greatest works of American history, one of the great towering works of American historical and political analysis ever committed to the page, in my humble estimation. And he does a lot to overturn this narrative.

But there's this real issue, right, which is that the victors get to write the headlines. I mean, the people that end up using terrorist violence, in many cases, these are just literal ex-Confederate generals. I mean, it's worthwhile to think about as essentially an insurrection after the war is over, right?

They lose the war and then they just keep fighting. They turn their power not against the armed forces of the American state, which are still in the south until the Compromise of 1876 and 1877, but against the free blacks in their midst. But what happens to that historical record? Because this is an amazing thing that I learned from your book, where these testimonies are, where the actual committed documentation of the atrocities of the Klan live and don't live.

Kidada Williams: Right. So they're in federal records because of the Klan hearings. This was an opportunity where we get a national record of what actually happened. But essentially what happens is larger investments in white supremacy, not only in the South but across the nation, played a significant role in a lot of people, particularly those who are progressives and moderates and conservatives around the country, essentially turning their heads and saying, “We want to move on from this.”

So the records had been there. And they also lived on in African-American families for a period of time before that sort of tragedy, people stopped repeating those stories. They want stories to pass on. So these records have been here all the while. But you had historians and the nation largely ignore them. You do later on, with people like Eric Foner and all of the other historians who are producing Reconstruction history in the 1980s and 1990s, they are sort of digging into this history. And even before, you've got John Hope Franklin.

But part of it is that you still have the popularity of the Lost Cause narrative that is nationwide and it's popular amongst larger historians. So this history has been there for a long time. But it's the history that gets ignored. We are in the sesquicentennial, the 150th anniversary of Reconstruction’s overthrow, but it's not being marked.

Chris Hayes: That's interesting. Well, let’s talk about, set the context for the story you tell in your book, which is the story of terrorist violence, visit on black people attempting to live their lives and pursue their rights as newly freed. Just talk about the conditions of the immediate post-war Confederate states and the newly freed slaves.

Kidada Williams: So one of the things I think we have to be really clear on is understanding that ex-Confederates didn't let go of slavery lightly. They did what they could to hold on to it. And so, African-Americans largely had to fight their way out of bondage. They had to fight to escape the people who had been holding them in slavery. And so as they escape, they're enduring a lot of violence. There are a lot of people who are killed.

This is after the Emancipation Proclamation. This is after the 13th Amendment. But they do manage to get free. And what we see is that people start making their lives. They're reuniting their families. They are establishing schools and churches and communities and neighborhoods. They're acquiring land. They're voting. And they're even running for office. So they are making freedom real. They are living up to the promises of the nation.

Chris Hayes: I just want to zoom in on the timing here, because I think this is important and it changes year by year because of presidential reconstruction, congressional reconstruction. So ‘65 is when the war ends. The first quarter of ‘65 after Appomattox, Lincoln is assassinated, the 13th Amendment gets passed that year, right, in ’65?

Kidada Williams: It's later on in the year, December. Later on in the year.

Chris Hayes: Right. So December, you get the 13th Amendment. So I guess talk a little bit about the fighting their way out of slavery, because even that story, I think, is not told and was partly a revelation that I got from reading your book.

Kidada Williams: So this violence, this sort of emancipation reprisal is happening throughout 1865 and throughout 1866. And it largely continues over the history of Reconstruction, this retaliation against black people who are trying to live outside of slavery. And you've got, like, all of these instances where people are attacked and killed simply by trying to leave farms and plantations, or trying to come back like African-American men who served in the Union Army, coming back to farms and plantations where their family members are held, attacked and killed while trying to reunite with their people. So this is happening even before the Klan has been established.

Chris Hayes: Right. Exactly. That's my point, is that basically, the planter class never gives up violence, I guess is one theme here, right? Like, they don't give up violence simply because at a courthouse in Appomattox, Lee and Grant sit down and sign papers. Because in the countryside of Mississippi, it's like absolutely not. And we still have the guns, right? So that's a constant throughout this period, whatever the sort of punitive legal regime is coming out of D.C.

Kidada Williams: Right. Even with the 13th Amendment, that stance is, well, who's going to make us, right? And they realized that there is only so much willpower, there are only so many men in the Union Army who are going to stay for however long in order to enforce the rights that come through the 13th Amendment. So you even have generals at that time, Union generals were saying they're just waiting.

They're just waiting for us to leave and they're going to reinstall this system. And that's because of all of the violence they're seeing even after the 13th Amendment. So there's this belief that we are a nation built of laws and we respect the laws of the nation. But Confederates made very clear that they were not going to respect black people's right to be free and certainly not equal and secure.

Chris Hayes: And eventually, this repudiation becomes so violent and so open, it's intolerable to the federal government and to the new president after Johnson, Ulysses S. Grant. And you do get this essentially reoccupation of the South, right? I mean, you had congressional Radical Republicans create this sort of military general system. Basically, like, there's a window right after where it's like, “Okay, war is over,” and it just very quickly becomes evident they will continue to fight the war by other means.

They slaughter people in the Battle of New Orleans. This is a great scandal to the Johnson administration. It's a scandal in northern papers, “Look at these people that we vanquished, the Southern secession of treasonous Confederates who are still shooting people down like dogs.” The South then gets reoccupied. Tell us a little bit about what this period looks like, the federal troops in there, the military governor’s system, a pretty concerted effort to try to impose some actual genuine equality in the South.

Kidada Williams: Right. And so federal officials do send out those federal troops. But the challenge is this, there are only so many men, right?

Chris Hayes: Right.

Kidada Williams: And men who've been fighting the war want to go home.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Kidada Williams: They don't want to continue fighting in peacetime. You also have white southerners who are saying, “We surrender,” right? “What happened to the peace? Why are we living within occupied army?” So there isn't a lot of support amongst the white population for military occupation of the South, right? Even though for some people, it's needed. For African-Americans, it's absolutely critical.

What's also clear is that you do see numbers tick up in certain places. But it is an ever-retreating army. So we're not talking about whole battalions. We're talking maybe a couple hundred soldiers stationed in a place like Jackson, Mississippi, where the violence is happening 200 miles away.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Kidada Williams: So they may be able to go and get there, but not before hundreds of people have been menaced or terrorized in their home and dozens killed. So federal troops are there. And if you're lucky enough to be in the place where they're stationed, then you might enjoy some protection.

But Confederates are not stupid. They're not necessarily are always openly attacking where there are federal troops. They are doing it in places that are further out in those communities. And so someone who's in a city like Mobile, they're safe as one could be, but 20 miles out. And this is happening across the south, so it does have a limited impact, but not nearly enough to stop these Klan attacks, these home invasions, the emancipation reprisal and all of these people from being killed.

Chris Hayes: Right. So this is the conditions under which the Klan forms, right? It's in this era where Grant is president. There's a Republican Congress. They are, at least, surface level in the relative and comparative sense of white politicians at that time and through the ages, committed to some form of black equality. But you've got this essentially armed white supremacist organization. Tell us about the origins of the Klan in this context, how they start, how they grow, what they start doing.

Kidada Williams: So the Klan starts in 1867 in Pulaski, Tennessee. It starts as a social club between just sort of like white men. And then over time, it sort of mobilizes into targeting not only African-Americans, but also white men who had been loyal to the United States. And then it spreads from there.

You start to see more people who are involved with the organization. But more importantly, they don't have to be involved with the organization to be mimicking its behavior. And so what you get are people who see the benefit of menacing and terrorizing African-Americans, even though they have no direct or formal affiliation with a Klan group.

And then you start to see all of these other white terror groups emerge around the same time, that are not necessarily the Klan. They could be the White League, or the Knights of the White Camellia, or something like that. You've got all of these other Klan groups, because what you see here is an insurrection, is a new war on freedom.

Chris Hayes: That was really an interesting point in the book that I hadn't quite grasp, because I think the Klan obviously endures and it was sort of refounded back during the sort of peak racist years of lynching and Jim Crow in the ‘20s. The Klan in some ways is the effect, not the cause. Like, the cause is an armed white portion of the populace that wants to continue to make war against racial equality. They're going to form groups to do that.

Kidada Williams: Exactly. And I think the more important thing is that they can only do that and get away with it because of the larger investments in white supremacy across the nation. White Southerners weren't the only ones who harbored anti-black ideas. It's widespread.

And I often remind people that if white Northerners were all abolitionists, they could have abolished slavery any time, right? We wouldn't have needed the 13th Amendment. But that's not who they were. And a lot of them were anxious, frustrated and worried about the prospect of emancipation.

And so there were some who were like, “Okay, yes, we will accept the 13th Amendment. We will accept the 14th Amendment and the 15th Amendment.” But as the violence continued, a lot of people were only happy to look the other way and say it's time to move on. Very much like people look the other way today.

Chris Hayes: Right. But let me interrogate that a little bit. I mean, when you say they could have abolished slavery, I mean, they would have probably had to amend the Constitution, right? I mean, the South would have seceded earlier, right? I mean --

Kidada Williams: Exactly. But the thing is that there was a larger white majority in the north and west. And if they were all united to abolish slavery, as many of us are told, you've got these Northern and Western mythologies.

Chris Hayes: Right. I see what you're saying.

Kidada Williams: Then they could have harnessed the political power to abolish slavery, but that's not who they were. What they wanted was to stop slavery from spreading into the western territories.

Chris Hayes: Sure. Yes.

Kidada Williams: And they didn't want to let Southerners destroy the country that the Founding Fathers have created because they lost an election. That's why they fight.

Chris Hayes: Right, right. The point you're making, as I understand it, is the unionist cause is distinct from the abolitionist cause, even though the two are married through convenience in the actual crucible of the war. And in fact, Lincoln himself personally goes from the unionist cause to the abolitionist cause over the course of the war. Essentially, he's not an abolitionist really, in the full-throated sense, in the beginning. He becomes one through the course of the war.

So what I understand you say is the commitment to equality here is secondary to the commitment of the Union, and that really shows in that post-war period because northern white public opinion is not as invested in the project of equality as it had become invested in the project of preserving the Union.

Kidada Williams: Exactly. And that's why they're going to be reluctant to expend more time in resources --

Chris Hayes: Right. Exactly.

Kidada Williams: -- fighting this war to finally subjugate ex-Confederates.

Chris Hayes: Well, and it's also, like, I kept thinking about the experience in Iraq, right, which is like counterinsurgency is hard, right? I mean, like, that's what they're dealing with. I mean, it really is an insurgency against the forces and it's hard to put down. And they're persistent as hell and violent as hell. And in the same way, they're closer to the local populace than the troops stationed in Jackson. They can ride up on you in the middle of the night.

More of our conversation after this quick break.


Chris Hayes: We started in the opening with that really chilling story. What was the violence? How was it organized? How was it ordered and visited? What did it look like?

Kidada Williams: So what starts to happen, particularly in 1868, is a wave of assassinations against newly elected men, newly elected black men and voters. And then what starts to happen is they eventually move from just deliberately targeting the men when they go vote or when they're trying to serve in office, to visiting them in their homes with their families. And so what we start to see are a lot of these nighttime attacks. So families are awakened in the middle of the night and groups of armed white men are surrounding their homes. They enter their homes.

I liken them to domestic home invasions today. Some other people see them as very similar to no-knock warrants, in the sense that the blitz is intended to terrify you, to mortify you.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Kidada Williams: And these men who are being targeted are not alone in their homes. They're not expecting to be attacked. And they're often there with their families, with wives and children and elderly parents. And so they are not at all prepared to defend their lives. This is what's happening in a lot of these places across the south, these kinds of attacks.

And so they start to pick up in almost all of the former slaveholding states. So not even just the ex-Confederate states, but the former slaveholding states, because you've got states like Kentucky to have the same kind of violence. And it initially starts as political violence.

But what you start to see is that people who are engaging in it start to move on to economic violence, economic intimidation, someone who refused to defer to white authority in a store, someone who may have been buying too many goods.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Kidada Williams: Right? They are making the most of their freedom and they've got cash on hand, and they're being deliberately targeted because they have made too much of themselves.

Chris Hayes: Literally, for buying too much in a store?

Kidada Williams: For buying too much in a store, for having too much land, for doing all of these things, not because they are menacing white people, because they've opened schools, because they've opened churches. All of these are reasons why people are experiencing these kind of nighttime attacks.

Chris Hayes: Will you talk about the assassinations, just to go back? Because I knew about their night raids, but I had either not known or memory hold the assassinations, which are really stark. Like, it's the first crop of black-elected leaders and they start being murdered.

Kidada Williams: Exactly. One historian refers to it as the killing fields of 1868. And it is the deliberate targeting of black male voters at the polls. It is the deliberate targeting of newly elected black officials. And if they're not targeting newly elected officials, they are also targeting ministers and schoolteachers, et cetera, and they are slaughtering them.

Chris Hayes: And they're killing them in their homes, in public places?

Kidada Williams: Anywhere. People are attacked at the polling place. They are attacked on their way to the polling place, on their way from the polling place, anywhere. This is how widespread this violence is. And that's part of what gets certain members of Congress' attention.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Kidada Williams: So this is happening during Andrew Johnson's administration. And he's saying, “I really don't believe any of this.” And a lot of white conservatives, north and south, who are in the Congress and who are in his cabinet say, “Well, this can't be happening,” or “It's part of the culture. There's nothing new happening here.”

Chris Hayes: Right.

Kidada Williams: You've got a lot of denial that's going on. But progressives in Congress are able to push hard enough to get these hearings because they're still hearing a lot of these reports. And the reports are coming from federal troops, too. So it's not just African-Americans who are reaching out to lawmakers. It's not just their allies.

It is actual troops who are stationed in the region who are saying, “This is what's happening.” And we've got records like the Freedmen's Bureau’s record of murders, riots and outrageous. And it's just a register of these assassinations and these killings, and these whippings, and these kidnappings and disappearances that happened during this period, so 1867, 1868, 1869.

Chris Hayes: So that then transfers into the night raid and the Klan. Talk about who is doing the violence and how they're recruited to it, and what they say or don't say about what they're doing.

Kidada Williams: So people who are conducting the raids come from all walks of southern life. They are landowners. They are planters. They are elected officials. They are deputy sheriffs. So they're law enforcement officers. And they are sort of struggling working-class whites without property.

With this kind of insurgency going on, anyone and everyone can get in on it. There are even accounts where families say, or they believe that even young children are directing or they're using the threat. The young white children are using the threat, “If you don't give me what I want, I'm going to have my family Ku Klux you.” So anyone can get in on it and anyone does get in on it.

Chris Hayes: The point is that it's more ordered, right? There's disordered violence and ordered violence. And like when people come up in costume to menace you on a given night because they know you went to vote, that's an ordered operation, right? There are people that had to plan that and say, “Come meet me here.”

Just talk about the mechanisms by which that's happening, because there’s obviously, it's not like it's better to be the victim of disordered violence or ordered violence.

Kidada Williams: Right.

Chris Hayes: But the intimidation effect, the political effect, the sort of social effect of that seems, to me, to be even more pernicious than the stuff before it really starts to get organized.

Kidada Williams: Right. And so what you have is the deliberate targeting, often surveilling their marks. They are being very strategic. They're not always operating in places where there are federal troops or where local people have organized in order to defend their communities, which does happen in some places.

So these are very organized attacks, and it's not just random, “I'm just going to go and attack someone.” They do have to meet. They do have to plan. They do have to organize. They do have to strategize to sort of sneak up on the family and catch them off guard. So they'll kill dogs the night before, so that the dogs won't alert them to their arrival.

Chris Hayes: Wow.

Kidada Williams: So they are engaging in this very strategic, organized attacks. So it's not just sort of spur of the moment, although spur-of-the-moment violence is happening. And I think one thing to keep in mind is that all of this violence, the emancipation reprisal, the assassinations and the home invasions, the night raids and attacks are all happening at the same time.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Kidada Williams: They have a different start time, but they are happening over the course of the history of Reconstruction and its overthrow.

Chris Hayes: How open are the purveyors of this violence about it and how much do they keep quiet? Like, it's always an interesting thing to me about what people in the society will and won't brag about and what they'll keep quiet, and what they think they'll be punished for or not punished for. What does that look like in terms of the Klan, in terms of the White League and all these other groups?

Kidada Williams: So I think it varies significantly. And even when they do try to conceal their identities, a lot of African-Americans, having grown up with them, having known them, having encountered them in the community, at the local store on a regular basis, a lot of African-Americans are able to identify the people who attacked them, either by the sound of their voice, body marks. One family, they are able to identify a man based upon a boil that's revealed when his mask slips.

Chris Hayes: Wow.

Kidada Williams: Some of the men will sort of deliberately brag about it. But that all kind of comes to an end, especially once federal officials start getting more involved. I think they start to take greater precautions to protect their identities unless they're deliberately trying to kill someone. So you've got the combination of the terror attack, to trying to terrorize people and the assassinations.

I think for the assassinations, there is less concern about people knowing who they are, especially if the law enforcement is involved in the acts, especially if planters are involved in the violence. In some places, once you have military governors, if you have a military governor who's invested in addressing this violence, you may see them start to take more action to try to conceal their identity.

But what we know is that they're often talking about it. And so African-Americans who've been attacked are able to get information from people in their community about the words going around, about them bragging about the attacks.

Chris Hayes: Talk a little bit when you say the community, right, like this is post Reconstruction, southern rural Alabama or Mississippi, right? The plantation system is sort of being reconstituted under sharecropping, but it hasn't fully developed as a full economic system. So it’s kind of hard to get your head around, like, what does that mean? Like, what's daily life like in like small town Mississippi in 1869, 1970. To the best you can, like describe what that looks like.

Kidada Williams: A lot of rural communities, they spend their time farming and doing all of the things, tending to crops. And so their daily lives would really depend on the time of year --

Chris Hayes: Right.

Kidada Williams: -- and what the state of the crop is. But people, they have a lot of social interactions with each other through the community, walking to and from, in workplaces. African-Americans, if they have the time and means, and resources, they will try to move their families further away from white people. But they don't always have a say over that. So in some instances, people are living on top of each other.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Kidada Williams: And they all know each other. And so what you have is a lot of people knowing who's involved. Some families do conduct investigations, the equivalent of crime scene investigations, trying to figure out who attacked them if they don't know.

And so they are tracking horses, the mules. And they are putting out word in the community to try to figure out if certain people were at home during these attacks, or if they were known to have participated in them. So these are small communities, people know each other. There's a lot of information that's passed about what's going on. That makes it all the more devastating to African-Americans.

Chris Hayes: Right. I mean, one of the things that comes through in your book and maybe you could just choose a few examples or talk about it, is that like any tragedy in any situation of mass atrocity, the numbers can't serve to articulate the actual individual lived trauma of watching your child taken, or killed, or being beaten in front of your family. Just the level of rage and sorrow and grief that each example that's given and entered into the record is overwhelming.

Kidada Williams: I'll tell one story really quickly, and it's the story of Abe and Eliza Lyon. They managed to get their freedom. He was a blacksmith. He had his own shop. They are saving money. They are raising hogs. They have about $600 saved. They want to buy land. Their kids are in school. And they are attacked.

And Abe experiences paralytic fright in the middle of the attack. And so, like, he can't protect himself, much less protect the rest of the family. And the men invade the home and they carry him out and they assassinate him. And Eliza manages to protect herself and the children. They get Abe buried. But then the men know she's about to report to authorities.

And so they start to pursue her. And so she and the children, they have to leave and they escaped. And they make it to Demopolis, where she testifies and she talks about everything that they lost. She lost her husband. She lost his blacksmith shop. She lost his earnings. Her children lost their father. And they are significantly harder off after their attacks than they had been before. And that's exactly what the perpetrators wanted. People who are targeted lose virtually everything, including their lives.

Chris Hayes: Yeah, that point about the plunder which you talked about, there's this sort of political aspect of this and then just the economic. I mean, you begin to use this means of essentially reasserting economic control to establish what would come after the plantation slavery system, which is sharecropping, which is a means of economic control, but also enforced by violence. I mean, there is functionally no rule of law in these precincts, right?

I mean, that's the most important thing. It does not exist. It is pure warlordism, essentially white supremacist, vigilante justice is the law in huge swaths of the South.

Kidada Williams: Exactly. And that's the point that African-Americans who testify before Congress want the federal government to know, that there is no peace. We are being deliberately targeted and Reconstruction is being overthrown. All of our rights are now in question. And we need the federal government to step up and do more. We need federal officials to enforce our rights.

Chris Hayes: And there is some response by the federal government. The newly constituted Department of Justice, basically, one of the first things it does is to go and bring federal cases in the South against the Klan and against white terrorists, basically. Talk a little bit about what that looks like, how effective it is, what the reception is in the South when it happened.

Kidada Williams: So what you get is they send hundreds of Secret Service agents south to conduct these investigations and to arrest a lot of the perpetrators. So it does have a chilling effect while that investigation is being conducted. But then you have the trials. And the trials are going to be complicated by the fact that it is the federal government now trying to assert authority that it hadn't really asserted before in local communities, as opposed to allowing those local communities like South Carolina administer the law themselves.

So they do conduct the trials. There are some convictions. But the vast majority of the people, even those who are convicted, don't serve. They don't do any time. They are pardoned, or they simply don't show up. They don't report to going to prison. And so a lot of people, they go through this work to investigate, to arrest, and it does have a chilling effect on the violence. But even the sort of known perpetrators don't necessarily pay a price for what they did, which only incentivizes more violence in the future.

Chris Hayes: What's this period where you say chilling effect? You mean chilling effect in the good way, right? Chilling effect on the violence in so far as when there are federal agents crawling around, when cases are being made, people realized that there might be some accountability and repercussions.

Kidada Williams: Exactly. That they might lose their freedom.

Chris Hayes: Yeah, they might lose their freedom if they go and murder people, or kidnap them from their house, or shoot and kill their dogs.

Kidada Williams: Exactly. So this is 1869, 1870, 1871, where you have this chilling effect. And the Klan is effectively driven underground, but the violence doesn't necessarily end. It just becomes more dispersed.

Chris Hayes: Then what happens? I mean, you've got this period of this violence just continues for a very long time. It continues even throughout the Grant administration, the Department of Justice, the Secret Service agents, federal agents trying to make cases and making some, which, again, totally unprecedented. Federal government, DOJ, we think of now like, “Oh, it's a federal investigation,” like all new, completely new at that time.

And in fact, the testing ground for it, this is, what, white juries in South Carolina are not going to convict a white man who killed a black person. How much does it end up embedding itself in the social order? And how much effect does the violence have on reconstituting racial hierarchy?

Kidada Williams: It's totalizing, I think is the short answer to that, because what's also happening is that they are undermining Reconstruction. So through the violence, through the killings, through the deliberate targeting of voters and men and their families, what you see is a large scale sort of disfranchisement of a lot of black men.

And so what's happening is that they're also negotiating with members of Congress to sort of undo Reconstruction. So you see more ex-Confederates who are brought back into office. And you have a lot of Northerners, including in the Grant administration, who are doing what they can to a degree to try to reconciliate, right, to sort of restore friendly relations with white Southerners. And part of what that means is allowing those Confederates to come back into office, which is what they do.

So you get the Amnesty Act of 1872, which allows many, many, many, many more ex-Confederates to come back into office. And once they're in local and state office, and then as they start to gain greater traction in the U.S. Congress, they undo a lot of Reconstruction policies that protected African Americans’ rights and privileges. So they are still committing the violence. The violence is they understand how effective the violence is for subjugating black people. They understand that the rest of the nation will essentially kind of let them get away with it.

And once they're returned to power, they will have a say over what's enforced in their communities and not. And so, they are laying the foundation for the Jim Crow system that we get, including with lynching, disfranchisement and segregation. And they're doing it in this period.

Chris Hayes: We'll be right back after we take this quick break.


Chris Hayes: It's fascinating to me when you zoom in on the history here that Jim Crow takes a while to set up, decades and decades, in which amidst all the violence and amidst all the terror, and amidst all the pressure, and amidst all the racism and racial hierarchy, there are black freed citizens even holding office. It's not like there's one day, it's this system; and the other, it's this. There's decades and decades that this system, through the kinds of violence that you chronicle in the book, works its way towards Jim Crow. But it actually takes a while.

Kidada Williams: It does take a while. It takes several decades. Even after Reconstruction, even after 1877, it still takes another two and a half decades. And a lot of it has to do with the fact that black people are still holding on to their rights. And I think the other part that we miss about that is that they hadn't been deliberately targeted.

So you still have landowners. You still have people who are in office. But it is likely that they had not been targeted. So the violence hadn't reached them. So they're lucky they're able to hold on. And they're continuing to fight for their rights for as long as they can.

And it's their refusal to stop voting that results in once ex-Confederates get back in office, that they disfranchised them. And it's only after they disfranchised them, that they can install segregation.

Chris Hayes: Yeah. I mean, this is the point that I think is so important, is that as implacable as the forces of white supremacy and violence and hierarchy are, equally implacable is the desire for self-governance, freedom and equality on the part of black freed people throughout the South who keep voting.

I mean, my favorite story of this is Congressman John Lynch of Mississippi, who does two terms in Reconstruction. He represents Mississippi. He then is basically voted out, which is like chased out by essentially white terrorists. And then he runs again in 1880 in the teeth of like Klan violence, threats on his life, wins. There is equally forceful and implacable desire for freedom and equality on the part of people who are being threatened and subjugated throughout this period. And it's for that reason only, that Jim Crow is imposed over such a long period of time.

Kidada Williams: Exactly. Because they realized there's this piece that says, “And they were not vanquished.” Right? White people would not stop. And Joseph Rainey says, “The Negro will not rest until he gets his rights.” Right? And so they're very clear in understanding what their rights are and not walking away from them. And that's why they have to install the system that they do, because black people just won't lay down and take this.

Chris Hayes: Right. The violence isn't enough, which is why they have to move to literacy codes and different means of actual legal repression of vote and political power, because the informal mechanisms, as horrifying as they were, aren't enough to stop people from seeking freedom.

Kidada Williams: Northerners and Westerners know that, too, right? And they say, “A black people, they're insistent on having their rights.” And so there is alarming concern about that. And I think that's also why in other regions, they're willing to look the other way while they install their own versions of Jim Crow.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Kidada Williams: They may not disfranchise African-Americans, but they are installing these systems of racial apartheid and racial hierarchy in these other regions. So that means they're even more likely to look the other way, with a system like Jim Crow. We can get a Plessy v. Ferguson because you've got members of the Supreme Court who will say, “It's okay to separate them as long as you keep them equal,” and then not bear any responsibility for maintaining the equality.

The Supreme Court will later say, “All of these killings, these are not a federal issue. These are state issues.” Even as the states were making very clear that they were going to allow these people to kill black people with impunity.

Chris Hayes: The question of federal supremacy just ends up lurking over all of this, because local knolls are not enough to protect the rights of black people. And so, it will either be the federal government or no one is the choice.

Kidada Williams: Exactly.

Chris Hayes: Right?

Kidada Williams: Exactly. And for a long time, it was no one.

Chris Hayes: Right. Yes. I mean, the thing that I keep coming back to, and as I was reading your book, I was just thinking about people talk about winning the war and losing the peace, and I mentioned counterinsurgency before, it's, like, let's say the entire country was behind the goals of Thaddeus Stevens and the most radical white politicians, which is not even to say the most radical black politicians who are fighting for their own autonomy.

But even short of that, right, let's say that you just had a full government fully onboard with the vision of full equality of the most enlightened white radicals, it would have still been an extended bloody battle in the South for probably decades to win the peace, right? I mean, like, the Confederates weren't going to give up. Like, the only thing that could have done it, I think, is to meet force with force for very long periods of time.

Kidada Williams: And that's hard to do.

Chris Hayes: Yeah.

Kidada Williams: And it's hard to get people onboard with that, especially when you have U.S. empire to explore, especially when you want to sort of revive the economy. There are all of these other goals that people want to pursue.

Chris Hayes: Of course, yeah.

Kidada Williams: And they made it clear that that's exactly what they were going to do, which is what they did.

Chris Hayes: How long would you say this system exists? I mean, in some ways, obviously, it's co-extensive with lynching, right? I mean, it just slides from one to the other. They're different in some ways because of the regimes they happen in. But would you say that this kind of violence is essentially systemically endemic to Civil War itself until when?

Kidada Williams: I would say through the civil rights era, and especially what we see with the civil rights movement is an uptick. You get, like, the equivalent of the new Klan right.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Kidada Williams: Right? During the civil rights era with those attacks on activists and their families. And so, I would say that the extensive, the emancipation reprisal, the waves of assassinations continue through the end of the 19th century. You start to see more of the racist massacres that are happening in places like Wilmington, but they're also happening in places like Springfield, Illinois. They're happening in East St. Louis. So there is a kind of constant. The violence evolves. It changes. It doesn't go away.

Chris Hayes: Yeah. The Wilmington story is one of the most remarkable, which is basically a white supremacist coup against a multiracial local government that basically takes it by force successfully, and then just imposes white rule for the next 70 years. Like, that's the story. There's basically a multiracial shared fusion government. White people with guns take it over, like physically take the Capitol, the town hall, and then they just rule. And that's an American story no one tells us the story. But that happened in Wilmington.

Kidada Williams: Exactly. And it happened in Wilmington, in part, because African Americans there had been able to hold on to their rights and freedom longer than they were able to do in other places. So I think it shows like how widespread the mentality was to deny black people their right to be free, equal and secure. And I don't think that we have a full grasp on all of the massacres. So there are the sort of big massacres that everyone knows about, and then there are the little massacres that communities have forgotten.

So this violence continues, but it's in a variety of ways. And as you know, it does sort of merge or fuse with lynching, which isn't only a mob organized to attack someone and hang their body from a public place. You've got these extralegal killings, these racial terror killings that are much more common than a lot of us actually understand.

Chris Hayes: Say a little more about that.

Kidada Williams: So you have people who are being deliberately targeted and killed for defying white people in public places, for arguing about wages, for filing lawsuits, civil lawsuits in court. You still see this deliberate targeting, but you don't always have it as organized or as planned out as you did during this period.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Kidada Williams: You have a lot of like white people killing black people on the spot, just you know.

Chris Hayes: Just extrajudicial killing that's just then becomes unpunished by the state, right?

Kidada Williams: Exactly.

Chris Hayes: Or like you're pissed at someone or they say something to you and you kill them, and then you're not going to face any recriminations as opposed to, like, targeting them because they voted or something.

Kidada Williams: Exactly. Just sort of like interpersonal violence, everyday encounters and doing this. And then with the civil rights movement, that does switch things a little bit because you do start to see that shift over to the more deliberate targeting of activists.

Chris Hayes: Right.

Kidada Williams: But that other violence, that interpersonal violence is still happening.

Chris Hayes: Talk a little bit about the sources for this. Obviously, the Klan hearings are huge. One of the things you say in the book is that the realization that, like white newspapers are not going to record these, that there's not going to be a record of it. So where it is and how important it is to have this history and these stories?

Kidada Williams: So the Klan hearings, the records from the Freedman's Bureau agents, correspondence, black petitions, African-Americans are writing memorials and open letters all over the place, communicating the violence that's happening in their communities, African-American newspapers, personal correspondence, and in the memories of people who were children during the attacks.

So another body of sources would be the WPA Freedom Narratives, those interviews that were conducted with ex-slaves in the 1930s. A lot of people were asked about Klan violence. And what's very clear is that they are children during the attacks. And so they still remember the impact. They still remember the fear. They still remember the precautions they took to try to get safe, and the impact that it had on their families.

Chris Hayes: How does really immersing yourself in this period and the degree to which the law doesn't exist, the rule of force is what rules, affect the way that you think about America and American democracy?

Kidada Williams: I think it makes me realize how fragile American democracy is and how vulnerable black people are, right? I glad you didn't ask me a question about hope, because it's hard to sort of play the hope whisperer while black people are being deliberately targeted in the aftermath of Charleston and the aftermath of Buffalo. I think I have a very clear understanding of what white supremacists today want and what we are at risk of losing if we allow American democracy to fall, if we allow fascism to sort of go unchecked in the country.

Chris Hayes: It's so funny because we have such a fraught conversation about fascism, but whatever the word you want to use, it describes the system of the South that you see in every page of this book. It is violent, authoritarian form of government. It does enfranchise in a limited way some, although the other big story about the Jim Crow white supremacist in the South is horribly corrupt, horribly unresponsive to its own citizens, like terrible for everyone. It's not like it’s like a great system of like --

Kidada Williams: Right. Like fascism all over the world.

Chris Hayes: Exactly. Yeah. It's not like delivering the goods for poor white people throughout the South at all because it has disconnected itself from the feedback mechanisms of representative democracy so fully, through the forces of violence, through the abolition essentially of a functional rule of law to hold people to account.

All of the insidious toxicity of fascism are present in this universe, which is our own universe, which we think of. We talk about fascism. We talk about the comparisons. It's always broad. And we have this history here right in our own history, and not like some short period of time as you're noting in the book, for a very, very long period of time.

Dr. Kidada Williams is a historian, associate professor in the Department of History at Wayne State University. The book is called “I Saw Death Coming: A History of Terror and Survival in the War Against Reconstruction,” out in January. Professor Williams, thank you so much.

Kidada Williams: Thank you for having me.

Chris Hayes: Once again, great thanks to Professor Kidada Williams. The book is called “I Saw Death Coming,” and man, it will stick with you, some of the accounts in it.

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