Point of View

A monument to Gov. Holden

March 25, 2011 

— The North Carolina Senate is now considering righting a grave historical wrong, the impeachment of 19th century Gov. William W. Holden for fighting the Ku Klux Klan. On its face this makes perfect sense, but the Senate should think twice before acting.

Pardoning Holden for a crime he did not commit reassures us of our own progress without helping us reconcile with the mistakes of the past. Instead, the Senate should let the impeachment stand as a reminder of the state's troubled history and explore other ways to commemorate Holden and the movement that placed him in power.

All Carolinians - not just Republicans or African-Americans - owe Holden a debt. While most of the commentary on the legislation has naturally focused on Holden's role in fighting the Ku Klux Klan, his influence was legion. Holden played a central role in rebuilding the state after the Civil War's devastation, setting the stage for a new North Carolina.

Holden was an important, if late-arriving, supporter of African-Americans' political enfranchisement. On race, as on many topics, Holden's life was full of turnabouts. At the war's close, Holden resisted black suffrage. By 1867, the extraordinary mobilization of freed people and loyal whites in Union Leagues changed him into a strong voice for extending the vote to freed people. Just three years after the end of the war, Holden named staggering numbers of African-American magistrates, empowering them to defend the rights of the newly freed slaves in their own communities.

Holden also began to craft a progressive vision of a new North Carolina. At his July 4, 1868 inaugural, Holden told a crowd of 5,000 people that the Civil War had not just ended slavery, it also had made it possible for the first time to construct a fairer, more effective government.

"If the administration of public affairs shall bring peace, prosperity and happiness, all will share in these blessings," Holden said. "If on the contrary, it shall produce disorder and further suffering and misery, none will be exempt from these calamities."

The new constitution Holden championed extended the right to vote, eliminated property qualifications, modernized the court system, called for the creation of public schools, extended legal protections to married women and provided facilities for the poor, orphans, the deaf and the blind.

In raw form, this was the start of the construction of a progressive North Carolina. The path would not be smooth, as Holden's impeachment halted many reforms. Only decades later, after Charles Aycock and others disfranchised black men did the state again embrace Holden's progressive vision, shorn this time of its racial egalitarianism.

For his bravery, Holden was both loved and hated. His opponents circulated scandalous drawings of him, calling him a "Dammd negrofied Son of a Bitch." His supporters, white and black, saw in him the hope that the new government might be used for their benefit. They called on him as a "friend unseen," a "friend to the poore and a farther to the fartherless" for protection, money, clothes, pardons, jobs and everything else one could imagine.

After almost two years of fighting vigilante rapists and murderers, Holden finally suspended habeas corpus and pulled together a makeshift militia to arrest 100 suspected Klan members. For these and other alleged offenses, he was impeached.

The legislature considered pardoning Holden in his old age, but the ex-governor dismissed that idea on the grounds that he had done nothing wrong. Surely that is even more clearly true now than it was then. The crime was not his, but the legislature's.

It is not important whether we pardon Holden. It is important, however, that we remember the wrong done to him and, more importantly, to the people who suffered after his defeat.

The legislature should direct its commendable energy in more positive, lasting directions by erecting a monument to Holden and all the post-Civil War North Carolinians who organized for their rights and suffered at the hands of the Klan. Such a monument might help us all face the wrongs of the past and live up to the bravery and moral wisdom of those who fought for the right when the wrong had the wind at its back.

Gregory P. Downs is assistant professor of history at the City College of New York and author of "Declarations of Dependence: The Long Reconstruction of Popular Politics in the South, 1861-1908."

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