Is the Klu Klux Klan legal

North Carolina's first war on terror was against the Ku Klux Klan

Conservative newspapers downplayed the violence or claimed it was the work of union members in disguise. When charges were brought, suspects were set free thanks to forged alibis, intimidation of witnesses, or rigged jury courts.

The drop that broke the barrel was the shocking murder of Republican State Senator John W. Stephens. He was ambushed at the Caswell County courthouse, where he was attacked and murdered by a group of clan members. When the body was discovered, authorities did little to expose the perpetrators (it was later revealed that the man who lured Stephens to his death was the district's former sheriff).

"In Caswell and Alamance, the clan practically overthrew the government," said William C. Harris, a North Carolina historian and author of a biography on Holden. "The Stephens assassination finally got the Republicans moving."

Holden and the state Republicans decided that military intervention was the only solution. The governor declared Alamance and Caswell a riot area and declared martial law. Holden then asked President Ulysses Grant to intervene, but the federal government's sluggish response caused the governor to set up a state militia instead.

Escalation in North Carolina

Holden enlisted the help of George Washington Kirk, a colonel who had commanded a group of Union forces in the area during the Civil War. Kirk was notorious among the state Conservatives as "an East Tennessee guerrilla bandit," as a newspaper called him, who seized property from Confederate supporters in the western mountains of North Carolina.

"Kirk wasn't the best choice to defuse the situation," says Harris.

Kirk rounded up more than 600 soldiers. In just a few weeks in July 1870, the army rounded up more than 100 suspected Klan members, including many distinguished personalities. Holden tried to try them in military courts. Despite public fears that the operation could turn into violence, little blood was spilled during the Kirk-Holden War, as it later became known. But the backlash to the operation was fierce.