After the war, William Saunders and fellow Conservatives (later, they called themselves Democrats) watched with mounting anger as pro-Union whites, former slaves, and American Indians formed a political alliance within the state’s newly-established Republican Party. In 1868, that coalition crafted a new state constitution that granted all men the right to vote, regardless of race, and for the first time in North Carolina’s history mandated a statewide system of public schools. On Election Day, voters ratified the constitution and rewarded Republican candidates with both the governor’s office and control of the state legislature.

Minutes, June 20, 1920, Board of Trustees of the University of North Carolina Records, 1789-1932, #40001, University Archives, Wilson Special Collections Library, UNC-Chapel Hill

Excerpt from the UNC Board of Trustees meeting minutes. When the Board of Trustees voted to name the classroom building in honor of William Saunders, they cited his service as head of the Ku Klux Klan.


William Saunders and other Conservative leaders organized local bands of the Ku Klux Klan to reverse this political revolution. They found support among men who were struggling to recover from the devastation of war and feared losing the racial privilege that slavery had afforded even the poorest whites.

Klansmen perpetrated a reign of terror. In Graham, they lynched Wyatt Outlaw, a black constable, and hung his body from a tree in the center of town. In Yanceyville, they murdered state senator John Walter Stephens, a white Republican, and left his body on a woodpile in the county courthouse.

Klan violence frightened large numbers of voters from the polls and enabled conservative Democrats to regain control of the state legislature. In 1871, they impeached and removed from office Republican governor William Woods Holden, who had attempted to suppress the Klan. Democrats celebrated victory over what they called the “unwise doctrine of universal equality.”

“I Decline to Answer”

Saunders never publicly acknowledged his role in the Klan, even when called to testify before Congress. He was a successful newspaper editor and, from 1879 until his death in 1891, served as North Carolina’s secretary of state. While in that office, Saunders compiled a ten-volume collection of North Carolina’s colonial records, which he believed would “rescue the fair fame and good name” of the former Confederate state. Saunders also was a member and officer of UNC’s Board of Trustees from 1874 to 1891.

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Political parties change over time. After the Civil War, Republicans stood for equal citizenship. Conservative Democrats in North Carolina and throughout the South championed white supremacy.

Two major developments reshaped the parties during the twentieth century.


In the 1930s, the progressive policies of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal persuaded black voters outside the South to shift their loyalty away from the Republican Party and to vote Democratic.

Voting Rights Act of 1965

Then the Voting Rights Act of 1965 reopened the polls to disenfranchised southern blacks and helped to redefine the Democratic Party as the party of civil rights. Many white southerners who once had been faithful Democrats switched their allegiance to the Republican Party.