The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What history says about the Jan. 6 committee investigation

The importance of an unambiguous report that can’t be weaponized by Trump supporters

Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.), left, seen in December with members of the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. (Stefani Reynolds for The Washington Post)
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In a court filing in early March, lawyers for the committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol insurrection charged that former president Donald Trump and key allies engaged in two potential crimes: conspiring to defraud the United States and obstructing an official congressional proceeding. The claim is the latest chapter in the extensive — and ongoing — congressional investigation into the insurrection and offers some early clues as to the committee’s thinking and what its eventual report will look like.

If history is any guide, that report will be an incredibly important document. After the Civil War, defeated ex-Confederates turned to terrorism to limit the possibilities of freedom for formerly enslaved people. The violence only grew after Black men won the right to vote. Congressional Republicans — members of the party of Abraham Lincoln, emancipation and Black men’s enfranchisement — responded by forming a joint House-Senate committee to investigate “the execution of the laws, and the safety of the lives and property of the citizens of the United States” in the former Confederate states. Its report, submitted 150 years ago, holds sobering lessons for the Jan. 6 committee about what comes next: that is, how such an inquiry can succeed or fail in influencing policy and in shaping later understandings of a perilous chapter in the nation’s history.

Republicans outnumbered Democrats 13 to eight on the Joint Select Committee to Inquire Into the Condition of Affairs in the Late Insurrectionary States — popularly known as the Ku Klux Committee, named after the secret terrorist organization responsible for much of the violence. The Democratic minority, however, included racist and outspoken opponents of Reconstruction. One was Sen. Francis Blair Jr. (Mo.), who had once denounced African Americans as an “alien race of semi-barbarous men.” Republicans did their best to uncover the Klan’s goals and the extent of its terrorism, but Democrats on the committee rejected the proceedings from the outset, creating a partisan spectacle. They worked to put biracial democracy itself on trial, badgering and belittling Black witnesses and calling White witnesses to complain of the incompetence and venality of officials whom Black voters helped elect.

The committee’s reports and supporting evidence totaled 13 volumes and more than 8,000 pages, at the time the longest published congressional investigation in history. It contained the testimony from 600 witnesses, about one-third of them African Americans, who told of violent assaults and murders, rapes and arson committed by the Klan. The report from the Republican majority highlighted harrowing stories of political terror, including the account of Elias Hill, a disabled teacher, Baptist minister and grass-roots political leader who was brutally beaten outside his South Carolina home by six Klansmen.

The Democratic minority, however, submitted its own report shot through with racist and inflammatory language. It denounced “Negro supremacy” and called the enfranchisement of Black men “one of the most terrible blunders ever committed.” Democrats minimized the Klan’s “alleged outrages,” claiming that the Klan was not a political force and thus could not be responsible for political terrorism, but simultaneously excusing Klan violence as a just political response — “the legitimate offspring” — of Republican power in the South.

In the short term, little came of the investigation. The Republican majority recommended extending an existing law that allowed the president to suspend the writ of habeas corpus to effect mass arrests. President Ulysses S. Grant had put it to good use a few months earlier, employing the U.S. Army to help quash terrorism in South Carolina. But with a presidential election approaching, congressional Republicans chose instead to moderate their approach on the “Southern question” and let that provision lapse. It was a step in the national Republican Party’s retreat from Reconstruction and weakened the federal government’s ability to respond to future violence.

In the longer term, the Democrats’ minority report served as a kind of rough draft for the “tragic era” interpretation of Reconstruction that cast White Southern Democrats as victims and Black and White Republicans as imbeciles and villains. This view took firm root in historical scholarship. The “Dunning School” — named after Columbia University historian William Dunning and his graduate students — portrayed Black men as unfit voters and Radical Reconstruction as a national failure. In “Reconstruction Political and Economic” (1907), Dunning cited the Klan report as proof that the Reconstruction-era governments of the South were in “all the states bad, and in some of them a mere travesty of civilized government.” Black witnesses like Hill disappeared in Dunning’s account.

The “tragic era” mythology also pervaded American popular culture, providing a useful narrative for justifying the Jim Crow laws, codes and racist ideas that limited the economic, political and social advancement of Black Americans. For instance, white supremacist Thomas Dixon touted his research in the congressional Klan report as proof of the historical accuracy of “The Clansman,” his 1905 novel glorifying the Ku Klux Klan. It reached the silver screen in 1915 as D.W. Griffith’s blockbuster silent film, “The Birth of a Nation.” The film’s racist plot turned on the Klan’s lynching of a Black man who attempted to rape a White woman — the kind of behavior that Hill’s attackers falsely accused him of inciting.

The voices of Hill and other Black witnesses, to be sure, were never entirely silenced. W.E.B. Du Bois included an account of Hill’s testimony in his 1935 work “Black Reconstruction in America.” Many White scholars at the time ignored Du Bois’s work. But the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s — called a “second Reconstruction” by some — drove a reconsideration of the period. Historians adopted Du Bois’s emphasis on the centrality of the Black experience and agency during the Civil War and Reconstruction.

In 2017, Hill was honored with a wayside marker near his former home in York County — the first state marker in South Carolina to reference the Klan and its Reconstruction-era reign of terror. Still, signs of the “tragic era” view of Reconstruction remain. A study by the Zinn Education Project found its vestiges in the curriculums of more than 12 states.

For much of the last 150 years, Reconstruction’s critics trivialized Black witnesses’ testimony in the Klan report and used it instead to discredit the period’s democratic possibilities. Can the Jan. 6 committee protect its work against such willful and perverse misreadings? House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) took one step when she rejected two of the five Republican appointees to the committee, leading House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) to withdraw the rest. As a result, the Jan. 6 inquiry does not have what the Ku Klux Committee had: a minority that sympathizes with the goals, if not the tactics, of violent insurrectionists. That has not, of course, stopped Trump’s supporters from criticizing the investigation as a partisan witch hunt or perpetuating the “big lie.” But it means they can’t use the committee’s investigative resources to do so, nor will they be able to write that version of events into the committee’s final report — the kind of official record favored by historians.

In a larger sense, however, there are no guarantees of how future generations will read this or any other historical evidence. The misuses of the Klan report arose not from any fault of the investigators or the witnesses, but from the nation’s abandonment of the promise of Reconstruction. The reactionary and racist tendencies of the late 19th century gave birth to the Jim Crow era, which White Americans justified in the stories they told about the post-Civil War years.

If we might find some comfort in the reassessment of Reconstruction over recent decades, the hard truth is that it took a long time. The ultimate — if unsettling — lesson of the Klan report is that it gives the lie to platitudes that “history will judge” and “the evidence speaks for itself.” It’s a lesson to bear in mind about the work of the Jan. 6 committee, too.

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