About a half a century after 150 black people were massacred in Colfax, Louisiana, on Easter Sunday 1873, a monument to three “heroes” of that slaughter was unveiled in the city’s cemetery. It honored the white men “who fell in the Colfax Riot fighting for White Supremacy.” Also standing proudly in the town of Colfax is a marker, installed by the Louisiana Department of Commerce and Industry in 1950, also describing the worst massacre of the Reconstruction era as a “riot,” as other such slaughters of black citizens would be recorded in history books. The marker also touts “the end of carpetbag misrule in the South,” a “polite” way of saying that after the Massacre, the Reconstruction effort to establish equality for all was halted, and the U.S. moved into decades of Jim Crow, with more massacres and a lynching binge.
This Easter Sunday, as we face the challenges of the COVID-19 virus coupled with a president gleefully inflicting death and suffering on our citizenry of all colors, we should remind ourselves that history repeats itself, with new wrinkles. Where Colfax triggered a Supreme Court ruling that served to oppress the black population of the U.S. for the next 90 years, we too are faced with a Supreme Court which could end all our rights and privileges. If you are participating in virtual church today, or just staying home, whether you are religious, agnostic, or atheist—spare a little time to think about those who died for freedom in the past, and those who are dying to save the rest of us today.
I have a hard time with the fact that, across the United States, so many of these shrines to hate and white supremacy still exist. Colfax, a small town with a population of 1,492, is over 61% African American. Yet, the marker still stands.
Recall that the marker was installed in 1950; like so many of these monuments, the intention “was not to honor the … dead but to assert and celebrate white supremacy in the present.”
Race Bridges Studio storyteller and teaching artist Zahra Glenda Baker, who was born in Colfax, relates the history of the massacre from her personal perspective.
Read the full transcript here.
Hi, I’m Zahra Baker. And I spent the first three years of my life in Central Louisiana, in a small rural area that was surrounded by pine trees and weeping willows, pecan trees, and sat beside a place that was ironically called the Red River. Now my family is complex. And we had many difficulties in my early years. But … I was the youngest of seven and because of that, I got sent away to live with my Uncle Willy and Aunt Dot for a … for a year in Slidell. And then I was sent all the way to Lafayette, Indiana and was adopted by my Uncle Dave and Aunt Bessie.
Now this was far away from Colfax, Louisiana, where I was born. And it wasn’t until my young adult life that I was able to reconnect with my siblings. And the day that we met each other again, I was filled with joy and sadness and sorrow and frustration and anger and gratitude and fear. What if they didn’t like me? What if we didn’t have anything in common? We had so much time separated between us that I wasn’t sure if there was anything I had to offer them. But when I met them, there was such a feeling for comfort and familiarity that all of the fear just washed away. And they liked to talk a lot so there was a lot of laughter and a lot of chatter. And I was determined that I was going to spend time with each one of them until I figured out what we had in common. But what I came to realize was the story that we had in common was the story from our hometown Colfax, Louisiana. So they had all moved West to California but every year we would decide to have a family reunion. And often times we had that reunion in Colfax so that we could reconnect with our family and friends there.
So that on one of those trips, we were walking on down memory walk, sharing stories, and we came upon the courthouse. And when we got there, we saw a sign and the sign said, “Colfax Riot. On this site, there was an event called the Colfax Riot where three white men and 150 negroes were slain. This event occurred April 13, 1873.” And the sign said, “This brought an end to carpetbaggers misrule in the South.” Well, the wording on that sign was kind of odd to me. First of all, Negros was spelled with a little “n” and the word “misrule” and carpetbaggers”… All of that was strange to me, so I decided to do some research. And, I realized that 1873 was during a time called Reconstruction.
Now in Louisiana, they didn’t teach us anything about that time period. It happened right after the Civil War from, say, 1865 to 1874. So I had to dig deep. I asked people questions. I went online to see what I could find and what I found was that most of the historians didn’t really like to talk about Reconstruction. They felt that it was an experiment that failed. They felt that is was a time when there was a lot of corruption and carpetbaggers from the North and scallywags, which were Southern people who sided with the new government, had ruined the whole thing. And they also said that it was the worst period in American history.
Listening to Baker tell her story reminded me that we all have connections to that thing we call “history” if we dare to dig into the past. It is important that we don’t allow the past to be buried and disconnected from the present.
I’ve written about the Colfax Massacre before; I am republishing a portion of that story here today. This excerpt has been lightly edited.
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 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 whose names we will never know.
This 2013 story from The Root, 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."
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.
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.
In a 2015 article for ThinkProgress titled ”The Troubled History Of The Constitution’s Most Important Amendment,” Ian Millhiser wrote of the legal aftermath of the Massacre.
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.
A deeper discussion of Cruikshank and its repercussions—including the flipping of political parties—can be found in ”But The Hate Remains The Same: Reconstruction & A Changing Of The Guard in Southern Politics,” also written in 2015, by Daily Kos community writer 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.
As we struggle to survive through this current pandemic, I am reading about the disparate impact of COVID-19 on the black community. I read about black men who are afraid to wear masks as required, because of racist police reactions. I see incidents like this one.
Do not try to tell me that our ugly supremacist past is buried, and simply ‘history.” All I have to do is look to the White House, where there is now a supremacist-in-chief seated in the Oval Office. A “birther” president, with a birther wife, who just hired a “birther” press secretary. (“Birther” is the polite term for “racist white supremacist.”)
If you are inclined to prayer this Easter or any day, pray for an end to this deeply embedded flaw in our nation. Back those prayers up with meaningful action. We cannot change or erase the past. We can, however, build a different tomorrow.
Let us retire the Colfax signs and monuments to a museum somewhere, so that future generations can be reminded of human failure.
Let us ensure that the Supreme Court of the United States will not become a body who will enact a new Cruikshank or other openly racist decisions in the vein of Dred Scott.
We stand on a supremacist precipice, and while we do not think of the thousands of deaths of Puerto Ricans during Hurricane Maria as a massacre, or the disproportionate number of infections and deaths of black Americans in this COVID-19 pandemic as racist slaughter, the end result is the same: People are dying.
On this Easter Sunday, let us resurrect democracy, justice, and equality and bury white supremacy—not with prayer, but with a commitment that we will vote, and help get out more voters.