BOOKS: The Terrorist Next Door

BOOKS: The Terrorist Next Door

By Daniel Levitas

Vol. 24, No. 3-4, 2002 pp. 13-15

Daniel Levitas, The Terrorist Next Door: The Militia Movement and the Radical Right, New York: Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, Nov. 2002.

Written by Atlanta author Daniel Levitas, The Terror1st Next Door: The Militia Movement and the Radical Right traces the emergence of white supremacist paramilitary groups from their roots in the post-Civil War period, through the segregationist violence of the civil rights era to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and beyond. It details the origins of the right-wing tax protest movement of the 1970s, the rural radical right of the 1980s and the militia movement of the 1990s. Levitas has written widely about racist, anti-Semitic, and neo-Nazi groups and has testified as an expert witness in American and Canadian courts since 1986. The former executive director of the Atlanta-based Center for Democratic Renewal and the founder of the Georgia Rural Urban Summit, he has worked throughout the United States with civil rights, religious and community groups, and law enforcement agencies seeking to respond to bias crimes and hate group activity. The Terrorist Next Door is Levitas first book and it has been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. For more information see In this excerpt, adapted exclusively for Southern Changes, Levitas traces the origins of the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act, which barred the use of the military in civilian law enforcement. Since 9-11, President Bush has revived debate over the scope of the Act with a proposal to study possible revisions of the law in light of the perceived need to have the military play a greater role in combating terrorism on American soil. While Levitas acknowledges that the Act is an important guarantor of civil liberties, he unearths important and new history with his thoroughly documented discovery that passage of the law “was not driven by any high regard for constitutional liberties, but by the Civil War-era legacy of states’ rights and white supremacy.”

Although the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act was characterized by one federal judge as an “obscure and all but forgotten statute,” the law was an exceptionally significant piece of legislation. Its passage by a Democratic Congress was designed to prevent federal marshals in the South from using army troops to protect the lives and rights of blacks after the Civil War. As such, the Act was a symbolic and actual triumph for defiant Southerners who sought to undermine black rights, maintain white supremacy, overthrow Republican state governments, and establish “home rule.” Passage of the Posse Comitatus Act coincided with the end of Reconstruction and marked the beginning of a grim new era for African Americans in the South, whose lives for most of the next century were ruled by Black Codes, lynch mobs, and Jim Crow until the Brown decision and the passage of federal civil rights laws in the 1960s.

While the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 prevented the army from enforcing civilian law, its passage was not driven by any high regard, for constitutional liberties, but by the Civil War-era legacy of states’ rights and white supremacy. As such, the Act marked the symbolic–as well as the practical–resurrection of states’ rights after the collapse of Reconstruction.

Despite the military defeat of the Confederacy, armed vigilantism targeting blacks and their Republican allies was widespread across the South. The problem was especially severe in Louisiana, where thousands joined groups like the Knights of the White Camellia, the White League, the Ku Klux Klan, and the Regulators, to prevent newly enfranchised blacks from voting and to block Republicans from assuming office. Like the paramilitary rifle clubs of South Carolina, these roving bands of white supremacists specialized in political assassination, armed attacks on meetings, and wholesale massacres. Such violence produced more than, one thousand deaths in Louisiana alone in the three months leading up to the presidential elections of 1868. More carnage followed the elections of 1872, which produced rival contenders for local and state office, including the Louisiana governorship.

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This violence led Congressman Charles H. Joyce, a former Union Army officer and Republican from Vermont, to describe Louisiana as “cursed with a class of vicious and desperate men, who have kept society in a feverish arid choleric state, filled the land with crime and violence, set at defiance the regularly constituted authorities of the government, and rendered life, liberty, and property unsafe and insecure.”

On September 14, 1876, United States Attorney General Alfonso Taft instructed federal marshals to monitor polling places if they suspected bloodshed during the upcoming Presidential election. He also reminded them of their authority to form a posse comitatus of local civilians, militiamen, or federal troops if they felt it was necessary to enforce the law. Eventually seven thousand special deputy marshals were dispatched throughout the South to keep the peace that November.

The presidential contest pitted Republican Rutherford B. Hayes against Democrat Samuel J. Tilden and proved to be the most contentious election in American history. Although Tilden emerged from election night with an overwhelming lead in the popular vote, he won only 184 electoral votes, one vote shy of the number needed to win the presidency. In late January 1877, a national commission was established to count the electoral votes and resolve the turmoil. The result was the historic Southern Compromise in which Republicans agreed to recognize Democratic administrations in Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina if Democrats agreed to accept Hayes as president. The deal also called for the removal of federal troops that had been guarding Republican governors in South Carolina and Louisiana. By agreeing to return these troops to their barracks, Northerners conceded that the army would no longer be used to protect blacks, and other Southern Republicans from those former Confederates and Southern whites who felt compelled to subjugate or attack them, no matter how viciously.

The constitutional crisis that produced the Southern Compromise was resolved in 1877, but it wasn’t until the following year that Congress gave its final approval to legislation that would, once and for all, sharply limit use of the army as a posse comitatus and a force that could otherwise intervene in civil affairs.

Appeals to states’ rights and rhetoric about Southern sovereignty dominated debate on the proposed legislation, which was introduced by J. Proctor Knott, a lawyer and congressman from Kentucky. A onetime state legislator who became Missouri attorney general at twenty-nine, Knott had been a pro-slavery Unionist living in Missouri when a Union Army colonel had him arrested in 1861 for refusing to take a loyalty oath supporting President Lincoln. Knott was briefly imprisoned at the U.S. Arsenal in St. Louis, and the experience embittered him for life.

“The most diabolical atrocities of the French Revolution pale with insignificance” compared to the crimes committed by federal troops during the Civil War and Reconstruction, proclaimed Knott, who asserted that his Missouri political career had been “crushed by a set of thieving scoundrels under the guise of patriotism.” Seventeen years after Knott was released from Union Army custody, he drafted the Posse Comitatus Act. In its final form, it read:

From and after the passage of this act it shall not be lawful to employ any part of the army of the United States, as a posse comitatus, or otherwise, for the purpose of executing the laws, except in such cases and under such circumstances as such employment of said force may be expressly authorized by the Constitution or by act of Congress; and no money appropriated by this act shall be used to pay any of the expenses incurred in the employment of any troops in violation of this section; and any person willfully violating the provisions of this section shall be deemed guilty of a misdemeanor, and, on conviction thereof, shall be punished by fine not exceeding $10,000 or imprisonment not exceeding two years, or by both such fine and imprisonment.

On May 28, 1878, the Posse Comitatus Act was approved as an amendment to the Army Appropriation Bill, with 130 members (all but one of them Democrats) voting “yes,” 117 voting “no,” and 44 not voting. Hardly a Southerner could be found among those who opposed the Army Appropriation Bill and only five of the “no” votes were cast by Democrats.

Although the Act’s sponsors gave great speeches about the danger of standing armies and the risks of military despotism, their prime motive was to secure Democratic (read: white) control of the South.

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Because a strong case can be made against using army troops as a civilian police power, it is easy to see the Posse Comitatus Act as a guarantor of civil liberties. And it is. But that reality doesn’t negate the fact that Democrats in Congress who supported the Act did so because they wanted to block enforcement of the nation’s new civil rights amendments and laws, not because they wanted to guarantee the liberties of America’s black citizens.

Thus, the effect of the Act was to permit violence and vigilantism across the South, not to obstruct it.

Passage of the Posse Comitatus Act completed the work of the Southern Compromise of 1877 and was one of many signposts marking the restoration of white supremacy across the South. From a legal standpoint, it prohibited the flexible use of federal troops by governors, sheriffs, and federal marshals, but its value to Southern whites was also largely symbolic. Like the Southern Compromise, it signified the erosion of a national political will to protect black rights. No matter what practical limitations the Act placed on civil rights enforcement in the post-Reconstruction South, white supremacy had triumphed, and the Southern states were “redeemed” by 1878: free to oppress their black inhabitants through the viciously enforced customs of segregation and the laws of Jim Crow.