April 13, 1873 – The Colfax Massacre

As DeWitt Clinton Professor of History at Columbia University Eric Foner, writing in The Washington Post (3/23/08) points out:

Scholars estimate that during Reconstruction, the turbulent period that followed the Civil War, upwards of 3,000 persons were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan and kindred groups. That’s roughly the same number of Americans who have died at the hands of Osama bin Laden.”

“The single most egregious act of terrorism during Reconstruction” (per Foner) took place in the Colfax area of Louisiana in 1873. In the 1872 local election, a Confederate veteran supported by Democrats was running for sheriff against the Republican candidate. There was uncertainty over the winner, and unrest ensued.

Freed blacks rightly feared a Democratic victory. As Foner writes:

Organized violence emerged around Colfax almost as soon as the Civil War ended, targeting black leaders, school teachers, freedmen who tried to acquire land, and, once blacks won the right to vote, local officeholders.”

Initially the Democratics were declared the winners, but a faction prevailed that declared Republican Louisiana Governor William P. Kellogg the victor. A Republican federal judge in New Orleans ruled in favor of Kellogg, and the U.S. Government supported the governor by sending federal troops to Louisiana. But the white residents of the state refused to cooperate. Freed black men serving in the militia of Grant Parish cordoned off the county seat of Colfax and started drilling and digging trenches. They were able to hold the town for three weeks.

Local whites, including The White League, a paramilitary group intent on securing white rule in Louisiana, began to mobilize. Rumors circulated that local blacks had initiated a “reign of terror” and were roaming the countryside with the intent to “exterminate” all white people they found. Rumors and political tensions, as usual, were expressed with a sexual subtext. Accounts of the time said that whites believed stories of alleged threats by freedmen’s claiming they would seek revenge and take local white women for wives (or worse).

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On Easter Sunday, April 13, heavily armed whites overpowered the defenders (many of them holed up in the courthouse), and an indiscriminate slaughter followed, including the massacre of some fifty blacks who lay down their arms under a white flag of surrender. The final death toll remains unknown, but is estimated at around 150 blacks and three whites. Afterward, the bodies of some of the blacks were mutilated to serve as a “lesson” to blacks in the vicinity.

In response to these incidents and others throughout the South, President Grant ordered federal troops to restore order. But most of the relief was temporary. After Colfax, the federal government convicted only three whites for the murders. Moreover, the convictions were thrown out when the U.S. Supreme Court, in U.S. v. Cruikshank (92 U.S. 542 (1875), declared that the men had been convicted unconstitutionally. Foner laments “Cruikshank hammered the final nail into the coffin of federal efforts to protect the basic rights of black citizens in the South. Reconstruction effectively ended a year later, and the Jim Crow era began.”

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Unfortunately, the legacy of Colfax continues. As Foner observed:

This tragic story is more than ancient history. Into the 20th century, bones turned up in Colfax when the foundations for buildings were being laid. There still stands in the town a plaque, erected in 1951, commemorating the Colfax “riot” — not massacre — and “the end of carpetbag misrule in the South.” As recently as eight years ago, Chief Justice William Rehnquist cited Cruikshank as a precedent in overturning a conviction under the Violence Against Women Act. The Constitution, he declared, gives the states, not the federal government, the power to punish rape. Whether we realize it or not, Reconstruction and its overthrow remain part of our lives today.”

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