What is the Force Act of 1871, and how does it relate to the civil rights movement in the United States?
The Enforcement Act that you are asking about is the second of three Enforcement Acts passed by the United States Congress between May 1870 and April 1871. Each of these three Acts is known by secondary titles, which, like the primary titles, are similar, if not identical. To keep these Enforcement Acts sorted and duly understood, it is necessary to distinguish them by their dates of enactment as well as by their specific individual legislative provisions.
- The Enforcement Act of 1870 enacted May 31, 1870; also known as the Force Act of 1870; also known as the First Ku Klux Klan Act; called "An Act to enforce the Right of Citizens of the United States to vote in the several States of this Union, and for other Purposes": the act legislated criminal penalties for interference with the legal right of all citizens to vote whether the interference be in the form of "force, bribery, threats, intimidation, or other unlawful means...."
[I]f any person, by force, bribery, threats, intimidation, or other unlawful means, shall hinder, delay, prevent, or obstruct, or shall combine and confederate with others to hinder, delay, prevent, or obstruct, any citizen from doing any act required to be done to qualify him to vote or from voting at any election as aforesaid... Enforcement Act of 1870
- The Enforcement Act of 1871 enacted February 28, 1871; also known as the Force Act of 1871; also known as the Second Ku Klux Klan Act; also known as the Civil Rights Act of 1871; similarly called "An Act to enforce the Right of Citizens of the United States to vote in the several States of this Union": the act legislated and permitted federal oversight of state and local elections; two or more persons must request oversight and the town must have a population of twenty thousand inhabitants or more; amended the 1870 Act to include more severe punishments and larger fines for breaking the provisions of the legislation of the Force Act of 1870 (May). This Act is viewed as of lesser importance than the fist and third Enforcement Acts (May 1870 and April 1871).
- The Enforcement Act of 1871 enacted April 20, 1871; also known as the Enforcement Act of 1871; also known as the Force Act of 1871; also known as the Third Force Act, 1871; also known as the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871; similarly called "An Act to enforce the Provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, and for other Purposes": the act legislated and made state government officials liable before Federal Court for depriving anyone of civil rights and equal protection under the law; made intimidation practices as used by the Ku Klux Klan federal offenses to be tried in Federal Court whereas before it was a misdemeanor; authorized the president to call out federal militia to suppress local conspiracies and violence, revoking the right of conspirators to sit on juries related to intimidation; authorized the president to suspend the writ of habeas corpus for cause.
Sec.2 ... with intent to deny to any citizen of the United States the due and equal protection of the laws, or to injure any person in his person or his property for lawfully enforcing the right of any person or class of persons to the equal protection of the laws, or by force, intimidation, or threat to prevent any citizen of the United States lawfully entitled to vote from giving his support or advocacy in a lawful manner ... or to injure any such citizen in his person or property on account of such support or advocacy, each and every person so offending shall be deemed guilty of a high crime ....
Sec. 3 ... whenever any such insurrection, violence, unlawful combination, or conspiracy shall oppose or obstruct the laws of the United States or the due course of justice under the same, it shall be lawful for the President, and it shall be his duty to take such measures, by the employment of the militia or the land and naval forces of the United States, or of either, or by other means, as he may deem necessary for the suppression of such insurrection, domestic violence, or combinations ....
Sec. 4 ... it shall be lawful for the President of the United States, when in his judgment the public safety shall require it, to suspend the privileges of the writ of habeas corpus, to the end that such rebellion may be overthrown .... Enforcement Act of 1871 (April 20, 1871)
The Force Acts followed the ratification of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments--giving full citizenship and the full, unqualified right to vote to freed slaves and freemen--and reacted to the violent efforts made by the Ku Klux Klan to keep black Americans from voting and participating in local and federal elections. Thus the Force Act of 1871 (February 28, 1871) is an act that responded to the growing violence and threats from the Ku Klux Klan. Congress wished to respond to this chiefly by amending the Enforcement Act of 1870 (May 31, 1870) so that more severe punishments and harsher fines were the penalties for violating the Force Act of 1870. In other words, Congress wanted to legislate severe punishments for anyone who by "force, bribery, threats, intimidation, or other unlawful means" attempted to or did "hinder, delay, prevent, or obstruct, any citizen from" registering to vote or from casting a vote.
The Force Acts were immediately put to effective use in 1871--though there were later successful challenges to the scope of the authority of the Force Acts--when Federal U.S. Attorney General Amos T. Akerman, who was appointed by President Ulysses Grant in June 1870, indicted 5,000 people including Ku Klux Klan members in nine South Carolina counties, which were then under martial law imposed by President Grant for violating the Force Acts, then successfully convicted 1,250 violators of the Force Act. Akerman's success was not fully appreciated by some members of Congress, so in December 1871 Grant asked for his resignation. Challenges to the Force Acts came in which the Supreme Court ruled against the Force Acts in United States v. Cruikshank (1876) and Hodges v. United States (1906) when the Court ruled that (1) the federal government could not procescute individuals since their power of redress was limited by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments and that (2) redress against groups through the Enforcement Acts could not be upheld by the Thirteenth Amendment, respectively.
The Force Acts collectively instigated the eventual establishment of Jim Crow Laws in the South and instigated continually efforts of Southern governments to try to restrict black citizens from exercising their right to cast votes. Jim Crow: Jim Crow Laws focused on segregation of black Southerners from white Southerns and were predicated on the concept of "separate but equal." The relation between the Force Acts, Jim Crow Laws and the U.S. Civil Rights movement of the 1960s is an indirect one. (1) It was the enactment of the Force Acts that instigated the Jim Crow Laws. (2) The NAACP used the Jim Crow Laws pertaining to segregation in education to use the legal/court system to break Jim Crow and end discrimination, which encompassed discrimination in public facilities and discrimination at the voting place. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, or NAACP, chose to attack segregation in education to break all discrimination, including discrimination that kept black citizens from voting. Their victory in Brown v. Board of Education (1964) was a great milestone on the road to legally enforced equality without Jim Crow segregation in voting and other areas of life.
Voting Restrictions: The relation between the Force Acts and Southern attempts at disenfranchising black Americans and the U.S. Civil Rights movement of the 1960s is a direct one. The Force Acts were designed to counter the violent attacks against blacks in the attempt to prevent whole black communities from daring to vote through forms of disenfranchisement (ineligibility to vote). Through a long history of Supreme Court cases, challenges to Southern disenfranchisement have resulted in rulings that uphold blacks' right to vote. For example, in Guinn v. United States (1915) the Supreme Court ruled that voter registration "grandfather clauses," which required descendent from a registered voter, violate the Fifteenth Amendment. In Smith v. Allwright (1944) the Court ruled that the "white primary" of Texas also violated the Fifteenth Amendment. These and other cases led to the creation of the Commission on Civil Rights and the Civil Rights Division within the Department of Justice.
In contrast to these victories, Giles v. Harris (1903) and Giles v. Teasley (1904)--in which Giles challenged the constitutionality of Alabama's voter registration restrictions, like polling place taxes and literacy tests--were ruled against because the Court found that the issue of voter registration requirements were a "political question" rather than a constitutional law question. Then in the most direct relation between the Force Acts and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, in 1964 the U.S. Justice Department, while Robert F. Kennedy was U.S. Attorney General, used the Enforcement Act of 1870 (the original Force Act) to charge eighteen Mississippi men for depriving three black men of their civil rights by murdering them: the three men were Michael Schwerner, James Chaney, and Andrew Goodman.
The Force Act of 1871 was one of a number of Force Acts that were enacted during Reconstruction. These acts were meant to force the states to abide by the provisions of the Reconstruction Amendments. They were important in that they established the idea that the federal government could act to force the states to obey federal law.
In the later parts of Reconstruction, Southern states had regained much of their sovereignty. They were largely governing themselves and they did so in ways that were meant to negate the legal gains that blacks had enjoyed under Reconstruction. The states enacted laws that worked against black people’s rights to do such things as voting and serving on juries. In these ways, the states were going against the spirit of the 14th and 15th Amendments, which were intended to make African Americans legally equal to whites.
The Force Acts were meant to right these injustices. However, they clearly did not really work because blacks continued to suffer from discrimination after 1871. The Force Acts became meaningful again in the 1950s. At that time, the Civil Rights Movement started to use the power of the federal government against discriminatory laws passed by the states. The Force Acts established the idea that the federal government could step in and enforce rights when states would not. This was what the federal government did in many instances during the Civil Rights Era. Thus, the Force Acts helped to make the Civil Rights Movement possible.