The Day Freedom Died: The Colfax Massacre, the Supreme Court, and the Betrayal of Reconstruction

By CHARLES LANE

Southern blacks viewed the three post-Civil War constitutional amendments as guaranteeing them equal protection under the law. Yet postwar dreams of equality would be dashed during Reconstruction. Much of that failure traces back to the Colfax Massacre. During Reconstruction, white supremacist groups such as the KKK used violence to prevent southern blacks from exercising their legal rights, and elections were deeply influenced by the de facto disenfranchisement of terrified blacks. After one disputed election, a group of black Republicans peacefully occupied the courthouse in Colfax, Louisiana. A white vigilante mob gathered, and on April 13, 1873, they attacked the courthouse, setting it and gunning down those who fled. Blacks who surrendered were executed, with the death toll reaching 60. The outraged U.S. attorney, James Beckwith, sought to convict the killers, but got no cooperation from Colfax?s white community, and little help from blacks, who feared further reprisals. Charles Lane expertly describes the legal proceedings against nine whites, charged by Beckwith with federal crimes. In the end, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that the Colfax killers were subject only to state law: “the Supreme Court had decreed,” summarizes Lane, “that the Negroes must look to the states for protection.” Predictably, the white defendants were freed by state authorities, and southern states began to restrict rather than protect civil rights. The federal government would not interfere with Jim Crow for nearly a century.