Point of View

Plenty of sources of doubt about Saunders’ KKK role

June 6, 2014 



When I was a student at Chapel Hill nearly 60 years ago, excellent history courses were taught in Saunders Hall by memorable professors with names like Lefler, Caldwell, Godfrey, Johnson and King. They left a deep imprint on my sense of the past and our obligation to understand it.

I was concerned, then, to learn that student petitioners want to scrub from that building the name of Col. William Saunders, for whom it was christened almost a century ago. They are offended that he had something to do with the Ku Klux Klan, just what is not clear.

We know too little about Saunders and in particular his alleged association with lawlessness in the crucial years between 1868 and 1874. Here, we step into the shadowland that often darkens historical inquiry. Saunders did not make detection easy. When summoned to Washington in September 1871 to testify to a congressional committee, he was asked, “Are you now, or have you been at any time, the commander-in-chief of [the Invisible Empire]?” Saunders answered that “a certain portion of the public” thought he was, but then he invoked his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination.

Was Saunders therefore a “Fifth-Amendment Klansman”? I echo the pet phrase of inquisitors in the Joe McCarthy era of the 1950s who casually denigrated witnesses who “took the Fifth” in inquisitions concerning left-wing activity. Those witnesses paid a price for invoking constitutional privilege by being labeled “Fifth-Amendment communists.” Some probably were, or had been, Communist Party members. Others were not and wished to avoid identifying friends and associates – privacy of association also being a constitutional right.

A technicality possibly relevant to Saunders’ invocation of his constitutional privilege should be understood: If you answered any question in such interrogations, you could not refuse to answer others, on pain of being held in contempt and risking prosecution.

Historical analysis often requires a measure of speculation. Professor J.G. deR Hamilton, pre-eminent Southern archivist and founder of the Southern Historical Collection, darkens counsel on the issue of Saunders’ role in the Klan years. In his “History of Reconstruction in NC,” Hamilton writes: “At the head of the Invisible Empire in N.C. was Colonel William L. Saunders, of Chapel Hill, who although he directed it ... never took the oath of membership and hence was, strictly speaking, not a member.”

Yet one of Hamilton’s informants, Joseph C. Webb, writing to Hamilton in January 1902, says that in view of his “legal talent and ... great good sense, I did not hesitate to go to [Saunders] for advise[sic] as to the law, and what best to do in certain cases ... and I will say that the people of No. Carolina never knew how much they owed to that great, good man.”

We also have Saunders’ personal denial, in a draft letter, that, “I do not now countenance any violation of law for mere partisan or political purposes nor have I ever done so in ... word or deed.”

Thus the written sources, including the Hamilton history and the Webb and Saunders letters, cut two ways on Saunders’ alleged association with the “Invisible Empire.” Far less ambivalent is Webb’s acid memory of the conditions of the period: “No. Carolina from 65 to 68 inclusive was absolutely deprived of all protection of law, and ... subjected to the brutal will of ... graceless and irresponsible scoundrels.”

It is possible that Webb, writing from memory decades after the events, confused his dates. The context of his harsh recollections is inexplicit but familiar to students of Reconstruction. A Republican congressional faction known as “radicals,” having attempted to usurp Lincoln’s direction of the war, later seized control of Reconstruction policy after 1866 and soon replaced President Andrew Johnson’s olive branch to ex-Confederates with a militarized policy and the disfranchisement of Confederate office-holders. They would shortly seek to oust Johnson by a trumped-up impeachment.

What we have in the renaming controversy is renewed proof that Reconstruction history is, as a historian wrote, a “dark and bloody ground” of controversy as acerbic as the war it followed. Did William L. Saunders direct and encourage Klan follies in North Carolina? Or was he a moderating influence on night-riding hotheads in white sheets? The documentary evidence is ambiguous. But since he can no longer speak for himself, I would give him the benefit of the doubt.

Edwin M. Yoder of Chapel Hill is a former editor and columnist in Washington.

News & Observer is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service