4 – The Jim Williams Lynching – 1871
This was one of the most infamous crimes carried out by the first incarnation of the KKK. Captain Jim Williams was an African-American militia leader in South Carolina’s York County. He had been a slave but escaped during the Civil War and fought for the Union. Although the North ‘won’ the war and slavery had been abolished, Southern radicals were still bitter and determined to make free blacks, and whites sympathetic to their cause, suffer.
Williams was gravely concerned about black residents in York County, and, along with a local preacher named Elias Hill, he met a group of Klan leaders to talk about the safety of African-Americans in the area. Sadly, the negotiations failed, and on February 12, 1871, a group of at least 500 Klan members murdered eight black men. While the KKK is synonymous with wearing white outfits, they were wearing black gowns and masks during this attack. They continued to raid black residences for months afterward.
Local whites claimed that Williams threatened to kill them and also suggested that his militia was beginning to stockpile weapons. Other slurs included a rumor that Williams said he wanted to rape white women, and also that his militia was responsible for committing arson on a number of white properties. These were highly dubious claims and seemed like an attempt to justify the horrors of what happened next.
On March 6, 1871, a group of approximately 70 Klansmen, led by James Rufus Bratton, traveled five miles to William’s cabin. As they didn’t know where he lived initially, they beat up Andy Timons, a member of the Union League, in a desperate attempt to find the location of the intended victim. Williams was clearly alerted to the danger because he was found hiding under the floorboards when the Klan arrived. With no concern about police intervention, the KKK were free to drag Williams from the house and place a noose around his neck. They tied the rope to a tree and forced their victim to climb to the limb.
A KKK member named Bob Caldwell pushed Williams who grabbed the limb in a hopeless attempt to survive. Caldwell began to cut off Williams’ fingers until the unfortunate man let go and plunged to his death. Williams’ body was brought to Bratton’s office, and the Klan leader performed the inquest. While members of the Union League swore revenge, nothing happened. In October 1871, Elias Hill, who assumed leadership of the league, helped a number of local African-Americans to flee to Liberia to escape the Klan.