Re-discovering Amos Akerman, a lost GOP hero of the 19th century South

On Thursday, a small but important group of history buffs gathered to announce the re-discovery of one of the most important Republicans of the 19th century South.

If the Georgia GOP is smart, it won’t let him be forgotten again.

You can be forgiven if you’ve never heard of Amos Akerman. For 100 years and more, the social order of this state and the rest of the South depended on your not believing that men like him existed.

“I have to admit, I didn’t know who Amos Akerman was until about a month ago,” said state Attorney General Chris Carr, one of several who gathered for the unveiling of a marker put up by the Georgia Historical Society on the site of the old Akerman homestead.

In 1870 and 1871, Akerman led the federal fight against the Ku Klux Klan throughout the South, beating back the para-military organization as it attempted to re-establish through terror the white supremacist society that had been lost in War.

“Amos Akerman, in a very short period of time, in those two years, looked evil in the face,” Carr said. “And it probably cost him his job.”

The audience and participants at the formal ceremony, held in the theater of the Booth Western Art Museum, were overwhelmingly Republican. That’s important, as I’ll explain.

Vince Dooley, the former UGA football coach and former chairman of the historical society, was there — as was his successor, Sonny Deriso. So was Don Waters, the chairman of the state Board of Regents, and Martha Zoller, a member of Gov. Brian Kemp’s staff. The keynote speech was delivered by Larry Thompson, the great-great-grandson of a former slave, who served as deputy U.S. attorney under President George W. Bush.

“It’s really not important where you were at the beginning of your life. What’s important is where you end up at the end of your life,” Thompson began.

Akerman was a New Hampshire-born, slave-owning attorney who had wandered into Georgia during the years before the Civil War. He opposed secession, but enlisted in the Confederate army when war broke out in 1861.

But once the shooting was done, Akerman embraced the Republican party and its Southern agenda: To rebuild a society in which former slaves had the necessary political and legal standing as citizens to protect themselves from their former white masters.

Immediately after the Civil War, Akerman’s battles were local. When a black man was elected Superior Court clerk in Chatham County, Akerman successfully defended him against those who would have denied him the office because of his race.

Akerman and his family took up residence in Cartersville when his white Democratic neighbors in Elberton turned against him. His sin: Akerman had supported a former slave in a state legislative contest, and led a group of African-American men to the polls on Election Day.

In 1869, Akerman was appointed U.S. attorney of the Northern District of Georgia. Then he became the first former Confederate named to the Cabinet of President Ulysses Grant, as U.S. attorney general. The investigative unit he established would eventually become the FBI.

Until recently, outside of a few history departments on Southern campuses, Akerman was an invisible, forgotten man. But in 2017 Ron Chernow’s wonderful biography of Grant focused on the brightest spot of the former Union general’s administration: Akerman and the Republican president’s effort to salvage Reconstruction.

Thompson read Grant’s description of what was happening in the South:

“The purpose of the Klan was, by force and terror, to deprive colored citizens of the right to bear arms, and to the right to a free ballot, to suppress schools in which colored children were taught, and to reduce the colored people to a condition closely akin to that of slavery.”

Thompson summarized: “Simply put, in today’s terms, this is and was domestic terrorism at its worst.”

The Akerman event on Thursday was important both historically and politically.

Ultimately, Reconstruction was a failure. The white South lost the war, but won the peace — and so wrote its own version of history. For more than a century after the Civil War, the South was in the thrall of the Lost Cause, the hard-sold myth that the buying and selling of human beings was only incidental to the conflict. A “war of northern aggression” brooked no self-criticism.

It can be rightly said that the carving on Stone Mountain isn’t a monument to the Confederacy, but to the myth that papered over the South’s defeat.

The consequence is that, now and then, we actually find ourselves having to state the obvious: That this first iteration of the Ku Klux Klan, like the ones that followed in 1915 and afterwards, was beyond redemption.

Thompson told of that time in 1985, while he was a U.S. attorney in Georgia, when he broke up a Klan cell in Carroll County. Five men whipped a white woman in front of her children for allowing a black co-worker into her home.

Only three years ago, a state lawmaker and former history teacher, who is still in the Legislature, claimed that the Klan “was not so much a racist thing, but a vigilante thing to keep law and order.”

You cannot believe in both the Lost Cause and Amos Akerman. If one exists, the other can’t. “I think Akerman is important because he shows that there was something else, that not every Georgian bought into the Lost Cause,” said David Parker, a professor of history at Kennesaw State University. “He serves as a good exception to that.”

Parker has been onto Akerman since at least 2001. He teaches Georgia history. That Elberton tidbit is his.

As mentioned earlier, the re-discovery of Akerman has political implications, too. In the decades after the Civil War, even after World War II, Democrats advertised themselves as “the white man’s party.”

The Southern strategies of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, two George Bushes and Donald Trump have forced a cultural and political swapping of name tags. Republicans are now the party of white men, particularly in the South.

But white men are increasingly in short supply. When the Trump era ends, whether in 2020 or 2024, the GOP will need to redefine itself, or be forever consigned to minority-party status.

And if you’re looking for what the next Republican party should look like, how it might reach out to more women and people of color, Amos Akerman is a decent place to start.