Violence and Backlash


The changes in American democracy and society following Emancipation and Reconstruction provoked a violent response from Americans who were opposed to Radical Reconstruction and shocked by the attempt to overthrow white supremacy in Southern society. Centered on Violence and Backlash, Part Five of Facing History's video series about Reconstruction, this lesson will help illuminate two periods of violence and terror during Reconstruction: one perpetrated by the Ku Klux Klan and the other perpetrated by paramilitary groups operating in concert with the Democratic Party. By watching the video and analyzing historical documents, students will understand that significant political and social change often provokes a backlash when large portions of the population do not support the change, and that, when that backlash includes violence and intimidation, it is corrosive to democracy. Students will also reflect on the factors that led to the success of violent groups in precipitating the defeat of Republican governments in the former Confederacy.

This lesson is part of Facing History's work on the Reconstruction era, and part of a series of video-based web lessons. Use this lesson to engage students in conversations around the effects that violence and terror can have on the choices made by individuals in a democracy. In addition to the suggestions below, see Lessons 10, 11, and 13 in The Reconstruction Era and the Fragility of Democracy for more resources and background information about both the causes and effects of violent backlash to freedpeople and their participation in political, economic, and social life during the Reconstruction Era.



  1. Reflect and Discuss

    Before watching the video Violence and Backlash, it is important to ask students to reflect on the effects of violence and terror on a democratic society and the ways in which that society might respond.

    Begin this lesson by prompting students to write a short reflection in response to the following question:

    • How should a democratic society respond to violence and terror?

    After students have spent a few minutes recording their thoughts, use the Think, Pair, Share teaching strategy to have them share their ideas with each other.

  2. Watch

    The video Violence and Backlash provides an overview of two different periods of violence during the Reconstruction era, and it helps students distinguish between the violence of the Ku Klux Klan--which was largely and successfully ended by federal law enforcement--and the paramilitary violence that erupted later in the 1870’s and played a key role in ending the period of Radical Reconstruction. We recommend that you show the video in two segments, pausing after the end of Klan violence has been explained.

    Show the video--pausing at the 7:45 mark. Before showing the video, share the following questions with students to guide their note taking:

    • According to the scholars in the video, to what were the perpetrators of violence during Reconstruction reacting?
    • What was the Ku Klux Klan? What were the Klan’s goals?
    • What can you infer from the video about the goals of political violence? What examples of political violence does the video provide?


  3. Read and Respond

    In this activity, students will read an account of a specific episode of Ku Klux Klan violence. It is important to give students the time to confront and respond together to the violence and terror depicted in the primary source document they analyze.

    Read the The Klansmen Broke My Door Open aloud as a class. After reading, use the Wraparound teaching strategy to help the class process the reading together. Students will first share a phrase or sentence from the reading that they find surprising, interesting, or troubling. Then they will share a single word that describes their experience reading this testimony.

    Race in US History

    Klansmen Broke My Door Open

    Read the 1872 testimony of a victim of Ku Klux Klan violence.

  4. Analyze

    After processing a description of Klan violence together, the class can now engage in a deeper analysis of how such violence was possible and permissible to so many in American society in the 1860’s and 1870’s. This activity will help initiate a deeper analysis.

    Ask the class to consider these questions:

    • What made Ku Klux Klan violence possible and acceptable to so many Americans as a reaction to Reconstruction and interracial democracy?
    • What evidence does the film provide to help you answer this question?  Record your initial thoughts in your journal.

    Have students read the following analyses by W.E.B. Du Bois and historian Eric Foner:

    Race in US History

    Collaborators and Bystanders

    Read historian Eric Foner's description of whom the Ku Klux Klan drew support from during the Reconstruction era.

    Race in US History

    A Nucleus of Ordinary Men

    Explore the role that secrecy and fear play in mob violence with W. E. B. Du Bois’ analysis of the Ku Klux Klan’s power.

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Looking for more lessons and primary source documents to teach the Reconstruction era? Get our complete unit on this important history, available in print, ebook, and free PDF.

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