When Christians think of the meaning of Easter Sunday, it symbolizes resurrection and hope. When I think of Easter Sunday in the black community, I think of all the ladies in their wonderful hats heading off to church. However, I don’t ever forget that Easter Sunday also marked one of the most horrible massacres of black citizens in U.S. history. It’s hard to erase the images in my mind of black bodies riddled with bullets, blown apart by cannon fire. They died at the hands of white supremacists who lost the Civil War but who won the years ahead, because they were able to destroy Reconstruction. I take a moment of silence and say a prayer for the dead, many of whose names we will never know.
This story from The Root on the Colfax Massacre, written by Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr., gives the details. It’s worth reading in its entirety.
In Colfax, La., on Easter Sunday 1873, a mob of white insurgents, including ex-Confederate and Union soldiers, led an assault on the Grant Parish Courthouse, the center of civic life in the community, which was occupied and surrounded — and defended — by black citizens determined to safeguard the results of the state's most recent election. They, too, were armed, but they did not have the ammunition to outlast their foes, who, outflanking them, proceeded to mow down dozens of the courthouse's black defenders, even when they surrendered their weapons. The legal ramifications were as horrifying as the violence — and certainly more enduring; in an altogether different kind of massacre, United States v. Cruikshank (1876), the U.S. Supreme Court tossed prosecutors' charges against the killers in favor of severely limiting the federal government's role in protecting the emancipated from racial targeting, especially at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan.
Historians know this tragedy as the Colfax Massacre, though in the aftermath, even today, some whites refer to it as the Colfax Riot in order to lay blame at the feet of those who, lifeless, could not tell their tale. In his canonical history of the period, Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877, Eric Foner has called the Colfax Massacre "[t]he bloodiest single instance of racial carnage in the Reconstruction era."
Listening to the testimony of now Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch (heaven help us all) in which he harped on “judicial precedent” over and over again brought to mind Supreme Court precedents like Dred Scott v. Sanford, Plessy v. Ferguson, and the aforementioned United States v. Cruikshank—all of which have the dubious distinction of residing on lists of the worst Supreme Court decisions of all time.
In The Root article, Gates referred to the fact that the Massacre is still dubbed a “riot,” as this historical marker in Colfax confirms. The racism and white supremacy of the past lives on in Colfax. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) mentioned the marker in a story covering “ the teenager who set off the largest rash of racist noose incidents this country has seen in recent decades.”
Jeremiah Munsen comes from Colfax, La., a town of some 1,700 people about 40 miles southwest of Jena. Colfax is the site of the Easter Sunday 1873 massacre of 150 members of an all-black militia defending the town’s courthouse against an assault by rampaging white supremacists. To this day, the town appears utterly unrepentant about its role in the bloodshed that portended the end of Radical Reconstruction and the imposition of racist Jim Crow laws across the South. A historical marker in Colfax, put up by the state Department of Commerce and Industry in 1951, calls the massacre “The Colfax Riot” and says it “marked the end of carpetbag misrule in the South.” Even more striking, there also still remains an obelisk monument erected in Colfax in “loving remembrance” of the three white men who died, as the monument boasts without further elaboration or shame, “fighting for white supremacy.”
For the detailed story of the massacre and the heinous Supreme Court decision that ensued, read The Day Freedom Died: The Colfax Massacre, the Supreme Court, and the Betrayal of Reconstruction, by Charles Lane.
Following the Civil War, Colfax, Louisiana, was a town, like many, where African Americans and whites mingled uneasily. But on April 13, 1873, a small army of white ex–Confederate soldiers, enraged after attempts by freedmen to assert their new rights, killed more than sixty African Americans who had occupied a courthouse. With skill and tenacity, The Washington Post's Charles Lane transforms this nearly forgotten incident into a riveting historical saga.
Seeking justice for the slain, one brave U.S. attorney, James Beckwith, risked his life and career to investigate and punish the perpetrators—but they all went free. What followed was a series of courtroom dramas that culminated at the Supreme Court, where the justices' verdict compromised the victories of the Civil War and left Southern blacks at the mercy of violent whites for generations. The Day Freedom Died is an electrifying piece of historical detective work that captures a gallery of characters from presidents to townspeople, and re-creates the bloody days of Reconstruction, when the often brutal struggle for equality moved from the battlefield into communities across the nation.
In an article for ThinkProgress titled “The Troubled History Of The Constitution’s Most Important Amendment,” Ian Millhiser wrote:
This Colfax Massacre offered the Supreme Court one of its first big tests under the new constitutional regime that emerged after the Civil War — and the Court failed this test completely. Though a prosecutor convinced a jury dominated by Southern white men to convict three members of the white supremacist mob of violating the civil rights of the men that they murdered, the justices tossed these convictions out in United States v. Cruikshank. Former slaves, Chief Justice Morrison Waite wrote, “must look to the States” to vindicate many of their constitutional rights. He wrote these words as murderous racists were rapidly seizing control of state governments in the South.
The discussion of Cruikshank and its repercussions is continued in “But The Hate Remains The Same: Reconstruction & A Changing Of The Guard in Southern Politics” by Daily Kos member Virally Suppressed:
After initially indicting 97 white men for their roles in the massacre, 9 were charged, not with murder, but with violating a section of the Enforcement Act of 1870 that prohibits individuals from conspiring together to withhold from another citizen any rights guaranteed to him under the Constitution or Federal law. Of the 9 that were charged, only 3 would be convicted and see their cases tried before the Supreme Court where—in one of the worst decisions in the history of the American judiciary—all 3 would have their convictions reversed. In writing the majority opinion of the court, Chief Justice Morrison Waite stated that all Americans were citizens of both the United States and the state in which they lived, with each government being responsible for a distinctly different set of rights. Using this rationale, the court ruled that it was not within the purview of the Federal government to enforce laws against private parties—such as murderous, racist paramilitary groups like the White League—and that they could only prosecute “state action”, while the individual states were left to mete out justice regarding private actions.
Having more or less handed over the duties of enforcing civil rights legislation to the states themselves in Cruikshank, the Supreme Court unofficially rendered the 14th and 15th amendments moot in any state that didn't feel like enforcing them. Unsurprisingly, the election of 1876 was characterized by unprecedented levels of racially-motivated voter fraud, with white Democrats in the South threatening blacks with violence if they dared to vote and pulling tricks like ballot-stuffing and placing the silhouette of Abraham Lincoln—symbol of the Republican party—next to Democratic candidates names to fool illiterate blacks into mis-voting. Through a mixture of corruption, intimidation and outright violence, Democrat Samuel Tilden won a plurality of states in the deep south in the election of 1876, but—in the closest presidential election in our nation's history and the only one to have the losing candidate garner over 50% of the popular vote—Tilden ceded the presidency to Republican Rutherford B. Hayes in exchange for removal of all remaining Federal troops from the south.
All in all, the Compromise of 1877—as the deal would come to be known—was a tremendous success for white supremacist Democrats in the South and an unmitigated failure for Republicans, blacks and civil rights advocates. In exchange for giving up a single term in The White House to a man whose most significant action in office was sending in Federal troops to help break up The Great Railroad Strike of 1877, the Democratic party had put the final nail into the coffin of Reconstruction, ushering in the era of Jim Crow and winning control of everything below the Mason-Dixon Line for almost a century. In 1964, the political tides began to turn in the South. Blue seas turned to red as Goldwater and his conservative acolytes spread their discriminatory message throughout Dixie, while President Johnson, a true, blue son of Texas, signed away southern loyalties with civil rights legislation that undid the damage his party had done 4 score and 7 years prior. One historical rotation ends. Another one begins.
Though Reconstruction was crushed in a sea of blood and terror and the Constitution was warped to fit the desires of white supremacists, black folks and our white allies continued to fight for that elusive promise of justice and equality.
The Rev. William Barber says that we are in a period he calls the Third Reconstruction.
Let it be so. In the spirit of peace and resistance during Easter and Passover, let us move forward together.
And may we be guided by the spirit of those men and women who died for the rights we have today.