Red, Black and White illustration of Black speakers and white rioters in Eutaw

America’s Political Roots Are in Eutaw, Alabama

When I think about the 1870 riot, I remember how the country rejected the opportunity it had.

Granddaddy’s voice was raspy; love laced his hello. His throne, a maroon recliner, filled the corner of the den in his ranch-style home. On a typical summer afternoon—during one of our weeklong sojourns back to Montgomery, Alabama, from wherever the Air Force took my dad—my cousins and I would be sprawled across the floor, keeping up a ruckus.

In the evening, Granddaddy would fumble with the remote, his hands worn from years working on the telephone lines for South Central Bell, and turn on the news. He would shush all of us; this was one of his favorite times of the day. Granddaddy always wanted to know what was going on, even if he could already tell you why it was happening. He was full of the wisdom of a man born into the sharecropping South of 1931.

People like him—folks from the Black Belt—have a long memory. They know how history can ripple through time; how politicians and private actors bend systems to maintain control; and how racism and white supremacy are at the root of it all. They know a naked power grab when they see one, because they have seen so many.

They know the towns—Eutaw, Eufaula, Mobile—where massacres and riots changed the course of history. Scholars call these events critical junctures; Granddaddy just knew them as the reasons things were the way they were.

Granddaddy’s knowledge of the way things were meant he was not fond of Montgomery Mayor Emory Folmar, who led the city from 1977 to 1999. “He just tries to scare people,” he’d say with a tinge of disgust, his eyes locked on the TV screen. Folmar’s smirk creased at the edges, projecting an air of benign affability, but he ran the city like the military; police officers on the evening shift wore SWAT-style uniforms. His argument for aggressive policing hinged on the idea that the city was dangerous. For more than 20 years Folmar kept his seat as mayor by sowing division, stoking alarm, garnering significant support from white Montgomerians while showing little concern for his Black constituents.

Folmar’s years in leadership were emblematic of a southern political legacy: drawing on white people’s fear that they had something to lose—money, jobs—if Black people were ever afforded equal rights. Such a strategy had worked in Alabama for more than a century; it had been effective north of the Mason-Dixon Line as well. In some ways, the legacy Folmar had inherited started in Eutaw, not far from where Granddaddy grew up.

For years, I watched my granddad lean forward in that maroon recliner and shake his head. I was young, though. He died in 2009, before I thought to ask him what life was like growing up—what led to the way things were. Around the same time, I went off to college, driving along I-20 through Sumter County after Mississippi turned into Alabama. Trees shaded the highway as I passed signs for Eutaw, in neighboring Greene County.

There was knowledge in the Eutaw soil, I was certain. It would teach me what Granddaddy knew.

Alabama hid aspects of its history for years, omitting them from textbooks and disregarding them in classrooms, which meant Black people learned their history from one another—perhaps while sitting at the feet of their elders, who would explain that it didn’t have to be this way.

Just after the Civil War, the nation went through a moment of radical political reimagination. Southern states were forced to introduce progressive measures to their constitutions in order to be readmitted to the union. In Alabama, that meant establishing free public schools and granting Black men the right to vote, among other things. But the progress was tenuous; in some ways, its undoing began when a mob murdered Alexander Boyd.

White people in Greene despised Boyd, a white Republican serving as county solicitor, and his politics. They disapproved of his associations with Black Republicans, and especially his investigation into the murder of Samuel Colvin, a Black man who was lynched by members of the Klan and shot 16 times. Boyd, they thought, was close to finding out who’d killed Colvin, and his mission to get justice for a Black man was upsetting the order of things.

masked horsemen ride into town

On March 31, 1870, a band of night riders crossed into Greene County at Cotton’s Bridge—roughly 19 miles north of Eutaw, the county seat. They made a beeline for the Cleveland House, a hotel where Boyd was staying. Just before midnight, about a dozen Klansmen burst into Boyd’s room, on the second floor. The posse was intent on hanging Boyd; Boyd was intent on fighting back. Bystanders heard a scuffle, then screams, then a gunshot. A minute or so passed, then came more shots. Boyd lurched into the hallway. The last shots riddled his skull. The Klansmen mounted their horses and rode back across Cotton’s Bridge toward Pickens County.

That wasn’t the only incident of Klan violence in the area that night. The same evening, Klansmen found James Martin, a Black leader in Greene County and member of the Union League, a multiracial social and political organization that was gaining traction throughout the South. After a flurry of gunshots, Martin was never seen again.

Alabama Governor William Smith appointed a special representative to investigate Boyd’s murder—though not Martin’s—and a grand jury was convened to hear the arguments. After 12 days of deliberation, the jury did not think that any Greene County resident could have been responsible. They declined to indict anyone for Boyd’s murder. There would be no trial.

Such impunity became its own version of proof—Klan members saw how much they could get away with. Though most local white people did not engage in explicit acts of violence and many despised the Ku Klux Klan’s methods, the historian William Rogers wrote, “they did not take effective action against the Klan. Instead they rationalized. Accepting the situation as unnatural and temporary, native whites believed that order, stability, and the rule of law would return once the [white] population resumed political control.”

After Boyd’s murder, Alabama careened toward the November 1870 election, when voters would pick a new governor, state legislature, and congressional delegation—each of which were led by Republicans at the time. Democrats knew that if they hoped to win power, they couldn’t ignore Greene County, whose population was nearly 80 percent Black.

Rather than trying to win the freedmen’s support, Democrats leaned into scaring them away from the polls. Only one Black man from Greene dared to attend the state’s Republican convention that summer; upon his return, white terrorists abducted him from his home, beat him, and tossed him down the shaft of a well.

By October 1870, Alabama Republicans were nervous. The string of prominent murders in Greene had blunted the morale of Black voters, and if Black folks in Greene didn’t show up to the polls, Republicans stood no chance at victory.

Party leaders began circulating handbills for a rally in downtown Eutaw to excite voters. Governor Smith would attend, as would prominent Republican members of Congress. About a week after Republicans announced their event, Democrats began advertising their own gathering in Eutaw at the same time and place. The makings of conflict were set.

On October 25, both parties kicked off their rallies outside the courthouse in Eutaw. Roughly 200 Democrats gathered on the north side of the building; their meeting was dwarfed by the gathering of nearly 2,000 Republicans, almost all of whom were Black, on the south side.

The Democrats disbanded first. White men—many of whom had been drinking—began to trickle to the south side of the courthouse. Some pushed their way to the front of the audience; others heckled from the periphery. The Republican Charles Hays, the district’s representative—who was hated by local Democrats for his moderately progressive racial politics—got up to thank the audience and adjourn the rally. But as soon as he stood to speak, a Democrat yanked Hays to the ground.

The county sheriff ran to arrest the man who’d pulled the congressman off the stage; Black audience members tried to protect Hays. A shot rang out, the bullet soaring over the heads of the predominantly Black crowd, then more shots—these went directly into their bodies. Black men stampeded away from the courthouse as bullet after bullet rained down on them. One senator in attendance later recalled that several white men organized themselves into a line and “fired upon that fleeing crowd of colored men as though they had been a gang of wolves or hyenas.”

Federal troops, who had been in and out of Eutaw after Boyd’s murder, came to quell the riot. But the mob had already inflicted its damage. Testifying later before a congressional committee that was investigating Klan violence, Hays said that at least four Black men had been killed and more than 50 had been injured. Senator Willard Warner, who had spoken at the rally, told the committee, “To see man after man in that crowd falling and scrambling away with his wounds, while a set of demons stood deliberately firing and shooting them down, is such a spectacle as I hope to never see again.”

Two weeks later, on November 8, 1870, Alabama held its election. Smith, the Republican governor, lost to his Democratic opponent by a total of 1,409 votes. In a special election in 1869, Representative Hays had carried Greene County by more than 2,200 votes; in 1870, he lost it by 35. In Sumter—Hays’s home county, which he’d won by 1,763 votes in ’69—he lost by 648. Hays ultimately won a majority in the rest of his district’s counties and retained his seat by fewer than 2,000 votes. But the effect of the reign of terror was clear: Black people had been kept away from the polls through lawless violence.

And yet the number of ballots cast in the 1870 election was roughly the same as the number of ballots cast in 1868. An advantage for Republicans in either Greene or Sumter would have meant two more years of a Smith governorship. Republicans believed that the election had been stolen; historians agree.

Eutaw changed Alabama. Scholars glean a lot of lessons from the riot, and others that followed it—in Eufaula and Mobile and elsewhere—but when I asked Bertis English, a history professor at Alabama State University, about it, he stressed that local white folks who did not fire their guns into the crowd were equally complicit. “It’s not just the mask-wearing Klansmen” who were to blame, English said. “It’s ordinary individuals who are tempted to preserve what they refer to as the ‘southern way of life,’ and to solve the ‘Negro problem’ by keeping them in their proverbial places.”

The terror campaign of 1870 ended the promise of Alabama’s brief Reconstruction era, allowing the so-called Redeemers to pry Alabama from the hands of reform. This was the critical juncture that led to the way things are.

Now, each time I return home to Alabama, I think about Granddaddy, about why it didn’t have to be this way.

The Eutaw riot occurred squarely in the middle of Reconstruction—when the extent of laws protecting recently freed Black people and the political power they were amassing in the South was tested. The Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, ratified in 1865, 1868, and 1870, respectively, gave America a second chance to live up to its founding ideals by granting Black people equal rights of citizenship. The Enforcement Act of 1870, which protected Black citizens against attacks by state officials and groups like the Klan, added weight to the government’s promise. When I think about Eutaw, I remember how America rejected the opportunity it had.

Eight days after the riot, the government filed federal charges against several white Democrats, including a man named John J. Jolly, for violating the free-speech rights of the speakers at the Eutaw rally, and the assembly rights of those gathered there. The Democrats were indicted for four separate crimes.

In elucidating the charges, John P. Southworth, the district attorney for the Southern District of Alabama, posited that where state officials failed to protect the rights of men—even when those rights were violated by private actors—the federal government had the responsibility to step in under the Enforcement Act to prosecute the offenders. Southworth’s path was novel, but he believed he could secure a conviction.

The case, which would become known as U.S. v. Hall, seemed doomed from the beginning. Finding people to sit for the jury was difficult: Some citizens said their summons never arrived; at least two would-be jurors were threatened. Meanwhile, witnesses were not offered any protection, and many refused to testify. One, Arthur Smith, was forced into hiding. William Cockrell and his son, both witnesses to the carnage at Eutaw, testified, but on their way home, a band of Democrats clubbed the elder Cockrell in the back of the head with a pistol.

black, white, and red drawing of the trial

The defendants’ lawyers tried to get the case thrown out. They argued that the Fourteenth Amendment, despite offering “equal protection” to all people, did not guarantee Black people the protections laid out in the Bill of Rights. But the judge pushed back on the objection. “All rights which are protected against either a national or state legislation may fairly be said to be secured rights,” William Woods, the circuit judge, wrote.

Woods’s declaration was remarkable for its simplicity. As the historian Eric Foner writes in The Second Founding, the Reconstruction amendments were dynamic; they were picked apart after passage and subject to divergent interpretations. Woods’s response to the Democrats’ objection hinted at progressive hopes for how far the amendments could go. He was acknowledging what the government owed its citizens—the full right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness—and reaffirming the government’s role in protecting those rights.

But ultimately the trial was fruitless. The jury found the defendants not guilty, and the rioters celebrated. “We congratulate the gentlemen from Eutaw on their full and complete and honorable triumph,” the editors of the Montgomery Advertiser wrote. Impunity reigned.

Meanwhile, Woods’s interpretation faded from memory. Despite the judge’s expansive reading of the Fourteenth Amendment, that the federal government had a responsibility to protect its citizens from private violence, the Supreme Court would not take such a broad view. “The court is increasingly saying, no … murder is a violation of state law, and the Constitution does not expand federal jurisdiction over things like that,” Foner told me. “And that really limits the ability of the federal government to come in and suppress violence.”

With neutered federal protections, the lawless reign of paramilitary groups such as the Klan flourished in the South. The power dynamic in Eutaw had been flipped on its head. Jolly, the Klan member who had been indicted in Eutaw, ran for office the same year he was acquitted. Black political power was stymied for more than a century.

Granddaddy took me to church with him on Sundays in Montgomery, in a small brick chapel on Decatur Street. It’s where I learned my hymns and that too many perfumes combined can fill up your lungs like smog. The preacher would flip open his Bible. “Weeping may endure for a night,” he would say. I’d look at Granddaddy, who always knew the verses. He’d join the congregation: “But joy cometh in the morning.”

August 11, 1969, must have felt like morning in Eutaw.

Bodies packed into the courthouse. Sweat dripped from the folks braving the balmy Alabama heat. It was a day of celebration. They called it “Independence Day”—complete with a parade, speeches, and a ball. A century later, Greene remained roughly 80 percent Black, and after a special election, six of the seven seats on the county commission were held by Black farmers. For the first time, Black people controlled a county government in Alabama. “To me, the Greene County victory is more important than the mission of Apollo 11,” Ralph Abernathy, the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, said during his speech that day. “The astronauts found only rocks covered with dust on the moon. In Greene County, we found human beings living a life of misery and poverty, exploited by the white power structure over which poor Black people had no control.”

Local white folks were notably upset. “This is the white man’s country—this is not the Negro’s country,” D. W. Bailey, the city clerk in Eutaw, told The Atlanta Constitution as he was writing payroll checks.

Still, for much of the county, it felt like a chance to breathe. Black residents would finally control their fates. They would be responsible for bringing jobs and relief programs to the area after years of neglect. One obstacle remained, though: Eutaw. Despite county-wide victories, Eutaw proper—the county seat—was controlled by an all-white city council, and had a white mayor. For a decade and a half after that Independence Day in August 1969, Black residents in Greene County would protest the city’s political makeup as a vestige of an era not long gone. By 1984, they were tired of waiting.

The plan to fix the issue was simple. Representative Lucius Black of York, Alabama, in Sumter County, sponsored a bill in the Alabama House that would annex several predominantly Black areas into Eutaw. At the time, the city’s population was almost evenly split between Black and white residents. The annexation would nearly double the city’s population, creating a majority that looked more like the rest of the county. Mayor Joe Sanders protested. “It would bankrupt the city of Eutaw to give the same services to these people,” he said. Fear and scarcity had always worked as tools to drive opposition to progress. Why not try them again?

For several months, the bill was held up by a white state senator, Earl Goodwin—who’d represented Eutaw until a state-wide reapportionment in 1983. On May 9, 1984, more than 200 Black Eutawans marched to city hall to protest the delay. Eutaw’s all-white city council was a “segregated island in an integrated sea,” the Reverend Joseph Lowery, Abernathy’s successor at the SCLC, said during the protest.

After an extended filibuster, Goodwin relented. A county-wide referendum was required to annex the predominantly Black areas. It passed. Black representatives made quick work of the next election, winning seats on the Eutaw city council.

But investigations arose as swiftly as the victories did. The Justice Department under President Ronald Reagan launched voter-fraud probes in five predominantly Black Alabama counties, including Greene. In 1985, an all-white federal jury convicted a longtime voting-rights activist in Eutaw, Spiver Gordon, who had won a seat on the city council in 1984, of abusing the absentee-voting process. Gordon, with the help of John England Jr., among the first Black students to graduate from the University of Alabama’s law school, sued. “The suit contends the Justice Department for years ignored complaints from blacks about whites abusing absentee ballots to retain political control in poor, mostly black counties,” a Selma Times-Journal summary of the case reads. “But after blacks gained control of many public offices in those counties, the suit said, the Justice Department under President Reagan suddenly became concerned about allegations of blacks abusing absentee ballots.”

The psalm says joy comes in the morning, but it doesn’t say it always lasts.

Rarely a week goes by when I don’t think about what Granddaddy saw—what he knew. The playwright Lorraine Hansberry once wrote, “The New South slams up against the Old.” Even as Black folks have had their rights expanded, explicit voter-suppression efforts have sought to curb them. America has a tradition of mucking up its critical junctures.

On October 9, 2019, I could not muster more words than “Wow.” Steven Reed had just been elected the first Black mayor of Montgomery in the city’s 200-year history. I pulled out my phone to call my mom. It had been only 20 years since Emory Folmar was the mayor. We laughed thinking about what Granddaddy would have had to say about it. He might have worried, the same way Black folks his age worried when Barack Obama was elected president. White people have not historically taken this sort of Black advancement lying down.

I’d begun digging into what happened at Eutaw by then. I knew more of the story—why things were the way they were and how significant that 1870 election was.

More than a year later, Raphael Warnock became the first Black Democrat to represent a former Confederate state, and Georgia’s first Black senator. The day after Georgians made history, insurrectionists rioted at the Capitol.

I have to imagine Granddaddy would have seen that coming.