RALEIGH (Reuters) - The long-dead governor had said he didn't want a pardon but North Carolina's state Senate said justice required one for the first U.S. governor to be impeached and removed from office.
By a unanimous vote on Tuesday, senators granted a pardon to former Governor William Woods Holden, who was driven from office in 1871 because of his efforts to suppress a Ku Klux Klan terror campaign.
"Today, we correct a 140-year-old wrong," said state Senator Neal Hunt, the Republican who initiated the resolution, before the 48-0 vote.
The vote came in a historic setting with the Senate convened for a special session in the old Capitol building in Raleigh, where Holden's 44-day trial ended in a conviction.
Senator Floyd B. McKissick, Jr., an African-American Democrat from Durham, said the conviction "was repugnant in every respect, and justice demands that it be reversed."
In 1870, the measure calling for Holden's impeachment was introduced by a former Klansman.
On Tuesday, the resolution pardoning him was read to the chamber by Lee Settle, an African-American Senate clerk.
"It was exciting," said Settle, 74. "I'm kind of old enough to remember some of the things that they talked about."
Holden initially supported the South's Civil War secession and opposed rights for blacks. But he changed his views after becoming disillusioned with the Confederate government and eventually switched from the Democratic to the Republican party.
At his July 4, 1868, inauguration, he declared that the post-Civil War Reconstruction could bring better government for whites and blacks alike.
But many white Democrats of the time felt the reforms of the Reconstruction era were forced upon them, and they sought to take back control of the legislature in 1870.
Their ambitions were aided by Klan terror campaigns that included murders, whippings and rapes aimed at intimidating black voters and white Republican officials.
In July 1870, Holden declared martial law in two counties known as Klan hotbeds and sent in a militia that arrested some 100 men. He suspended the men's right to appear before a judge out of fear that sympathetic local judges would release them.
Democrats later won control of the legislature and promptly impeached Holden on eight charges. The Senate convicted him on a straight party line vote and removed him from office.
Holden later dismissed a pardon consideration because he believed he did nothing wrong, said Gregory P. Downs, assistant professor of history at the City College of New York and author of "Declarations of Dependence: The Long Reconstruction of Popular Politics in the South, 1861-1908."
On Tuesday, Downs congratulated the Republican leadership for allowing the thorny issue to be resurrected and addressed.
But he said the largely symbolic vote should be the beginning rather than the end of a discussion of the legacy of Reconstruction and the movement for broader democracy.
"Good for them," Downs said. "It's not much, but not much can be a lot better than nothing."
(Edited by Colleen Jenkins and Peter Bohan)