The White Leagues emerged in the late Reconstruction South with the avowed purpose of overthrowing Republican governments and restoring white supremacy. Considered by both contemporaries and historians as the armed wing of the Democratic Party in the Deep South, they were committed to using violence to reverse the course of Reconstruction by removing Republican leaders from office. They first appeared in Louisiana during the late summer of 1874. In Mississippi, opponents of Radical Reconstruction also formed White Leagues or similar groups known as White Lines.
The earliest harbinger of the White Leagues and White Lines were the White Men’s Clubs that formed across Mississippi in 1870. The depression of 1873, which destabilized Republican governance, and the rise of more aggressive black Republican leaders dedicated to obtaining civil rights created a political landscape conducive to the emergence of White Leagues. Conservative white Democrats became more anxious and more determined to stop what they saw as a trend toward “Africanization.” The Mississippi White Line first arose in Vicksburg during the August elections of 1874. White dissidents formed a People’s or White Man’s Party that patrolled the streets, intimidating black voters. The gang forced black sheriff Peter Crosby and his board of supervisors to leave their offices. Planters in the countryside surrounding Vicksburg formed White Leagues to rid their region of “all bad and leading negroes . . . and controlling more strictly our tenants and other hands.” Pitched battles between White Liners and Crosby’s black supporters resulted in hundreds of black deaths. Gov. Adelbert Ames ultimately requested the assistance of federal troops, who restored Crosby to office in January 1875.
White Leagues could be found throughout Mississippi, though they were especially active in Yazoo, Claiborne, Noxubee, Hinds, and other counties with large numbers of African Americans. Leagues were often filled with young Confederate veterans, and the movement had a strong martial element. Each unit had its own flags, military regalia, and often cannons. Unlike the Ku Klux Klan earlier in Reconstruction, which terrorized African Americans and white Republicans through nocturnal raids, the White Leagues and White Lines operated openly. Editors and their newspapers often played a key role in organizing and leading White Leagues. Such newspapers as the Pascagoula Star, Vicksburg Herald, and the Beauregard and Wesson Times actively supported White League ideas and activities.
The White Leagues targeted Republican leaders for assassination, denied employment to blacks who voted with the Republican Party, and ostracized white Republicans. Armed White Leaguers killed blacks at a Republican rally in Clinton on 4 September 1875. In Kemper County white Republican sheriff W. W. Chisolm and his young son and daughter were essentially lynched by a White League crowd. These actions and others hastened the collapse of Radical Reconstruction. In 1875 Pres. Ulysses S. Grant admitted his weariness of “these annual autumnal outbreaks in the South.” A northern public increasingly preoccupied with class conflict, tired from decades of sectional strife, and uncertain about the federal government’s role in protecting the black civil rights followed the Grant administration in its retreat from Reconstruction.
- Eric Foner, Reconstruction, America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877 (1988)
- William C. Harris, The Day of the Carpetbagger: Republican Reconstruction in Mississippi (1979)
- Nicholas Lemann, Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War (2007)
- H. Oscar Lestage Jr., Louisiana Historical Quarterly (July 1935)
- George C. Rable, But There Was No Peace: The Role of Violence in the Politics of Reconstruction (1984)
- Mitchell Snay, Fenians, Freedmen, and Southern Whites: Race and Nationality in the Era of Reconstruction (2007)