A riot-turned-massacre in Clinton, Mississippi, in 1875 was one of the bloodiest episodes of racial violence and lynchings in state history and functioned as the beginning of the end of Reconstruction in the state. The Clinton Massacre of 1875 was the inaugural event to the infamous Mississippi Plan devised by white Democrats to “redeem” the state from the political control of newly enfranchised freedmen and the Republican Party during the 1875 election. It also served as the impetus for the issuance of Pres. Ulysses S. Grant’s controversial policy of federal nonintervention concerning matters of race in southern states, which eventually paved the way for the rise of Jim Crow laws and segregation.
Freedmen first began voting in Mississippi in 1867, and the 1875 election promised to continue the incorporation of black men within the state’s political process. With polls set to open on November 2, the Mississippi Republican Party planned political rallies on September 4 at Utica and Clinton in Hinds County and at Vernon in nearby Madison County. In Clinton (which is located less than ten miles west of the state capital, Jackson), whole families of black Republicans gathered at Moss Hill, the site of a former plantation destroyed by Union troops during the Vicksburg Campaign of 1863. Estimates of the attendance that day ranged from 1,500 to 2,500, nearly all consisting of freedpeople and their families who gathered to enjoy an afternoon of picnicking and politics. There were also approximately seventy-five white persons present, at least eighteen of whom were armed and intoxicated White Liners, essentially a paramilitary unit of the Mississippi Democratic Party made up of ex-Confederate soldiers and their descendants.
Aware of racial tensions, Republican governor Adelbert Ames was initially scheduled to speak to the crowd, but Captain H. T. Fisher, a former Union officer and editor of a local Republican newspaper, spoke in place of the governor. In the spirit of open debate and to educate newly enfranchised voters on the election process, Hinds County Republican leaders issued an invitation to the local Democratic Party to send a speaker of their own to address the crowd first. Amos R. Johnston, the Democratic candidate for state senate, spoke for an hour without incident; however, when Fisher took the platform next, he was heckled by White Liners from Raymond.
Republican organizers, including black state senator Charles Caldwell from Clinton, made several appeals for peace. Yet, the events of that afternoon quickly escalated into violence. Eugene Welborne, another rally organizer, testified that the White Liners fell into formation, brandished weapons, and trained them upon the crowd. “The thing opened just like lightning,” he recalled, “and the shot rained in there just like rain from heaven.” Fatalities that day numbered three whites and at least five blacks, two of whom were children.
Sadly, the violence of September 4 merely served as a prelude to the racial massacre that was to come. Amidst false rumors of an African American plot to storm the town, Clinton’s mayor called for assistance. Hundreds of White Liners traveled by railroad to Clinton, and their numbers quickly swelled to several hundred before nightfall. “They [the White Liners],” Welborne grimly recalled, “just hunted the whole country clean out, just every [black] man they could see they were shooting at him just the same as birds.” Sarah Dickey, a white educator from Ohio who had moved to Mississippi to educate African American women and children, later described the scene in a letter to President Grant proclaiming, “I was at the republican mass meeting, held at this place [Clinton]. . . . [T]he democrats, who were on the ground, went there for the express purpose of creating a disturbance and of killing as many as they could. . . . You hear a great deal about the massacre at Clinton, but you do not hear the worst. It cannot be told.”
While the violence following September 4 resulted in no additional deaths of white Democrats, the African American death toll was estimated to be between thirty-five and fifty, with the names of many of black victims never being recorded. (William P. Haffa, a white Republican from Pennsylvania and running for re-election as justice of the peace, was also lynched.) Despite countless requests for federal assistance by Governor Ames and other citizens like Welborne and Dickey, President Grant declared on September 13 that “the whole public are tired out with these annual, autumnal outbreaks in the South” and subsequently adopted a policy of nonintervention with respect to the state of Mississippi and the rest of the former Confederacy.
Despite the dozens of victims in September, the reign of terror in Clinton was not yet complete as the year came to a close. Nearly two months after the November 2 election, which effectively ended Reconstruction in Mississippi, the white Democrats of Clinton lured Senator Caldwell into the cellar of a local store under the pretense of sharing drinks during the Christmas season. When men’s glasses were struck in toast, Caldwell was shot through the window of the store cellar. Upon being shot, he was taken outside to die in the street. As he lay dying, a white pastor reported that Caldwell confronted his assassins with his last words saying, “Remember when you kill me that you kill a gentlemen and a brave man. Never say you killed a coward. I want you to remember it when I am gone.”
- Eric Foner and Manning Marable, eds. Herbert Aptheker on Race and Democracy: A Reader (2006)
- Melissa Janczewski Jones, “The Clinton Riot of 1875: From Riot to Massacre,” Mississippi History Now (September 2015)
- George C. Rable, But There Was No Peace: The Role of Violence in the Politics of Reconstruction (2007)
- Boutwell Report. 44th Cong., 1st Sess., Mississippi in 1875, Vols. I and II. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1876