1870 - Eutaw riot
The Eutaw riot was an episode of racial violence in Eutaw, Alabama (in Greene County), on October 25, 1870, during the Reconstruction Era. A white mob attacked a group of black citizens, killing as many as four of them, and swaying the 1870 gubernatorial election for the Democratic Party.
Background and violence
Old Greene County Courthouse in Eutaw, Alabama
Alabama citizens had been terrorized frequently by the Ku Klux Klan in the run-up to the 1870 gubernatorial election; in Calhoun County, Alabama, four blacks and one white had been lynched in July 1870. In Greene County, Gilford Coleman, a black Republican leader, had been murdered, and his body mutilated, after being taken from his own house, the first of two political assassinations of black men in the county.
On October 25, a political rally at the county courthouse in Eutaw organized by the Republicans, and with 2,000 blacks in attendance, was attacked by Klansmen (supporting Democrats) who verbally harassed the attendees and then started shooting; two, perhaps four blacks were killed, and 54 people injured. While there were Federal troops in the area, they did not intervene. Black voters stayed away from the polls in fear of more violence, contributing to Democratic electoral success. In the 1868 presidential election, Greene County had voted for Republican Ulysses S. Grant by a margin of 2,000 votes; in the 1870 gubernatorial election it voted for Democrat Robert B. Lindsay by a margin of 43.
A legal case was brought during the tenure of United States Attorney General Amos T. Akerman, a former Confederate slaveholder who became one of the Klan's most outspoken enemies. After the riot, a local man named Samuel B. Brown, likely a low-ranking Republican politician, appeared before U.S. Circuit Court Judge William Woods. His testimony resulted in a complaint charging fourteen whites with violating the First Amendment, and white Democrats with violating the Constitutional rights of Brown and six others.
The election itself went by calmly, with black voters, afraid and intimidated, staying home or voting Democratic. While state officials took no action (besides arresting some of the black victims of the riot), the U.S. Commissioner in Demopolis issued arrest warrants, and $4000 bonds to ensure their appearing in court. A federal grand jury indicted twenty of the rioters on December 24, 1870, while Woods was awaiting a response to a letter he sent to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Joseph P. Bradley, inquiring whether federal law, particularly the Enforcement Act of 1870, was applicable. Bradley responded in January 1871, indicating he understood the real question: whether the rioters had violated the victims' constitutionally protected right to freedom of speech. The Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments protected individuals against the state, but in Eutaw it had been private individuals, not the state, that had violated citizens' rights. The matter became especially pressing with the readmission of some Southern states to the Union; against the expectations, Democratic politicians in those states were perfectly willing to suppress the black (Republican) vote in violent ways, leading to significant Republican losses in the U.S. Congress. These events only strengthened Bradley in his resolve to defeat violent white Southerners by legal means.
In the end, federal prosecutors failed to gain a conviction in United States v. Hall; the case could, it has been argued, have set an important precedent for the protection of African-Americans under the Fourteenth Amendment.