Lamar and the KKK incident of 1871, Part 3
Published 6:00 am Sunday, October 11, 2015
For the last two weeks, I have given you some historical data on the Ku Klux Klan Trials of 1871 held in Oxford at the federal district court.
I ended last week with L.Q.C. Lamar dislocating the jaw of a U.S. marshal in the courtroom. After the incident, Lamar gave an apology for his actions to the judge and the court. Most everyone involved thought this was the end of the incident, but it was not.
According to Edward Mayes, in his 1896 biography of his father-in-law, everyone concerned thought the incident had been laid to rest since “Lamar’s apologies were accepted by the judge; but on the next day, without notice to him, the following order was entered upon the minutes.
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“Whereas a most unfortunate and much to be regretted difficulty occurred in the presence of the court yesterday, in which Col. L.Q.C. Lamar, a member of the bar of this court, was a party; and whereas soon thereafter the said Lamar made an apology to the Court which was satisfactory to the judge of the court as an individual, yet, being the judicial representative of the United States for the time being, the judge of the court deems it necessary for the vindication of the court and the government that the name of said L.Q.C. Lamar be stricken from the roll of attorneys thereof, and that he be prohibited from practicing as an attorney and counselor therein.”
What a loss to Oxford, our state, the South and even the United States would have happened if this disbarment had stood. There was great surprise and “no little indignation amongst the members of the bar.” Also the “newspapers contained accounts of the fracas, made emphatic comments upon it; the Clarion, for instance, saying that ‘It will detract nothing from his fame as a lawyer and a high-toned, chivalric gentleman, in the highest sense of the term.’”
Lamar forbade his fellow attorneys to come before the court and plead his case. He maintained that “he had done nothing but what was his right in protecting himself in a very moderate manner from a murderous assault, in the first instance, and from an unlawful and oppressive arrest as he deemed it, in the second. After a few days of cooling time, however, the district attorney of his own motion moved the rescission of the order, which motion was promptly granted, and amicable relations restored.”
Over the years, however, much was distorted and misrepresented of this incident. Mayes states, “The radical papers made much ado over it.” It was even reported the students from the local state university were to have rushed into the bar, and joined in the fracas. It was also reported that Ku Klux Klan prisoners were depicted as vaulting over the railing of the bar, with cheers from the onlookers. Later when Lamar was in Congress, the matter was exploited in the Ku Klux report to Congress and some vague attempt was made to connect Lamar with the Klan in some undefined manner.
From time to time in Lamar’s later career, this affair was occasionally made the text of assaults upon Lamar’s character by his political enemies. When President Grover Cleveland named him to the Supreme Court, the matter was again revived in an article in the New York Tribune. This attack was such, the former U.S. marshal whose jaw was dislocated gave a written statement of the whole affair.
Marshal Pierce wrote, “I was appointed Marshal of the United States of the Northern District of Mississippi on June 1879 (reappointed June, 1874), and had my office at Oxford, the home of Col. Lamar, whose acquaintance I soon had the pleasure of making, and whom I afterwards knew well. Our relations, officially and personally, were always most pleasant, as also were his with other officers of the court.”
Pierce goes on to state, “I had known that it was mainly due to his efforts and personal influence that a riot was averted at Oxford, at an election held during November 1869; and from intercourse with him I knew him to be conservative, law-abiding, and considerate of the views of other men. Knowing his great ability, his extensive knowledge of our institutions, and his conservative tendencies, and believing that he could best represent the people of that district, I favored his election to Congress, and voted for him.”
Marshal Pierce was a Republican and Lamar a Democrat. This should be taken into account when deciding whether or not the incident occurred as a way to free Klan members from the court, which it did. When Lamar ran for his old seat in Congress, there was a Republican in the race. There has never been any connection of Lamar to the Ku Klux Klan as a member or a supporter.
In a letter dated July 5, 1887, Judge R.A. Hill (shortly after Pierce’s comments were published in the Tribune) felt it necessary to weight in on the incident as he remember. Hill wrote, “I was shown, a day or two since, by a friend of you and myself, a copy of the TRIBUNE, in which there is an allusion to a difficulty which occurred in the court at Oxford, regretted by no one more than myself. I trust that it will not be alluded to again. If so, and it becomes necessary, I will do all in my power to render it harmless to you, as well as to myself. It occurred under most extraordinary circumstances, its disposition was at the time satisfactory to all concerned, and it ought to be buried in the sea of forgetfulness.”
Jack Lamar Mayfield is a local Oxford historian and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.