Nov. 17, 1871

Visit of the Ku-Klux” by Frank Bellew (1872) depicts two Klansmen attacking a Black family during the Reconstruction era. Credit: Library of Congress

Edward Crosby stood before the congressional hearing and swore to tell the truth. By raising his right hand, Crosby put himself and his family at risk. He could be killed for daring to tell about the terrorism he and other Black Mississippians had faced. 

Days earlier, he had attempted to vote in Aberdeen, Mississippi, asking for a Republican ballot. The clerk at the polling place said none was available. He waited. Dozens more Black men came to vote, and they were all told the same thing. Then he tried another polling place. Same result. 

That day, white men, backed by a cannon, drove about 700 Black voters from the polls in Aberdeen. After nightfall, Crosby stepped out to retrieve water for his child when he saw 30 or so Klansmen galloping up on horses. He hid in a smokehouse, and when Klansmen confronted his wife, she replied that he was away. They left, and from that moment on, “I didn’t sleep more than an hour,” Crosby recalled. “If there had been a stick cracked very light, I would have sprung up in the bed.” 

In response, Mississippi, which was under federal rule at the time, pursued an anti-Klan campaign. In less than a year, grand juries returned 678 indictments with less than a third of them leading to convictions. 

That number, however, was misleading, because in almost all the cases, Klansmen pleaded no contest in exchange for small fines or suspended sentences. Whatever protection that federal troops offered had vanished by the time they left the state a few years later.

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The stories of investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell have helped put four Klansmen and a serial killer behind bars. His stories have also helped free two people from death row, exposed injustices and corruption, prompting investigations and reforms as well as the firings of boards and officials. He is a Pulitzer Prize finalist, a longtime member of Investigative Reporters & Editors, and a winner of more than 30 other national awards, including a $500,000 MacArthur “genius” grant. After working for three decades for the statewide Clarion-Ledger, Mitchell left in 2019 and founded the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting.