April 13, 1873, witnessed the Colfax Massacre, the most dramatic example of anarchy that reigned throughout much of rural Louisiana, during Reconstruction. With federal troops, numbering well under 2,000, unable to establish order, many white parishioners refused to pay taxes or otherwise recognize the authority of the state government. The situation worsened with the formation of the White League, openly dedicated to the violent restoration of white supremacy. It targeted local Republican officeholders for assassination, disrupted court sessions, and drove black laborers from their homes. The state Democratic platform opened with these words:
“We, the white people of Louisiana,” and one party paper newspaper pronounced “a war of races” imminent.
White League violence and extensive efforts to use economic intimidation against black voters dominated the campaign. Even veterans of the New Orleans Unification movement embraced these tactics. As one explained:
“Last summer one hundred of us, representing fairly all the grades of public and social status, humbled ourselves into the dust in an effort to secure the cooperation of the colored race in a last attempt to secure good government, and failed. . . . To this complexion it has come at last. The niggers shall not rule over us.” (1)
The post-Civil War amendments (13TH, 14TH, and 15TH Amendments) had been designed to protect the rights of black people, who were now U.S. citizens in the most tenuous way. With the right to freedom, the right to vote, to right to own property—-to have autonomy over their own lives and bodies, black people could now have the long-sought control over their lives that slavery had so long denied them. But, it was not to be. Not in the eyes of rabid white supremacists who would never allow equal status between themselves and black people who no longer were held under the bondage of inhuman chattel slavery.
On April 13, 1873, arose the Colfax Massacre, the bloodiest single act of carnage in all of Reconstruction.
Whatever the “legacy of slavery” or the strengths of black citizens commitment to legal processes, the practical obstacles to armed resistance were immense. Many rural freed people owned firearms, but these were generally shotguns, much inferior to the “first class weapons” like Winchester rifles and six-shooters in the hands of the Klan. Although many had served in the Union Army, black men with military experience were far outnumbered in a region where virtually every white male had been trained to bear arms. The fate of individuals who successfully repelled Klan assaults did not inspire confidence in extralegal resistance, for many were forced to flee their homes for fear of subsequent attack, and saw family members victimized in retaliation. As for organized self-defense, the very idea of black resistance, of black people taking the law into their own hands was bound to inflame and enrage whites and create a further escalation of violence.
“It would be annihilation to the negroes if they should undertake such a thing”, commented a white Republican official in Alabama, an appraisal borne out in Louisiana in 1873.” (1)
The election of 1872 produced rival claimants for the governorship, a situation paralleled in localities throughout the state. In Grant Parish, freed people who feared Democrats would seize the government, cordoned off the county seat of Colfax and began drilling and digging trenches under the command of black veterans and militia officers. They held the tiny town for three weeks.
On Easter Sunday, whites armed with rifles and a small cannon overpowered the defenders and indiscriminate slaughter followed, including the massacre of some 50 black men who laid down their arms under a white flag of surrender. Three whites also died.
The bloodiest single instance of racial carnage in the Reconstruction era, the Colfax Massacre taught many lessons, including the lengths to which many opponents of Reconstruction would go to regain their accustomed white superiority. Among black people, the incident was long remembered as proof that in any large confrontation, they stood at a fatal disadvantage.
“The organization against them is too strong. . . . Louisiana black teacher and legislator John G. Lewis later said. “They attempted [armed self-defense] in Colfax. The result was that on Easer Sunday of 1873, when the sun went down that night, it went down on the corpses of 280 negroes.”
But, it was what the federal government did that was a crime just as cruel and hateful as the Colfax Massacre.
Indictments were brought under the federal Enforcement Act of 1870, alleging a conspiracy to deprive the victims of their civil rights. On the grounds that the wording failed to specify race as the rioter’s motivation, the Supreme Court overturned the only three convictions the government had managed to obtain. More, however, was at stake than faulty language, for the Court went on to argue that the postwar amendments only empowered the federal government to prohibit violations of black rights by states; the responsibilities for punishing crimes by individuals rested where it always had—with local and state authorities. The decision did uphold Washington’s authority to protect the “attributes of national citizenship,” but these had been so narrowly defined in the Slaughterhouse Cases as to render them all but meaningless to black citizens. In the name of federalism, the decision rendered national prosecution of crimes committed against black citizens virtually impossible, and gave a green light to acts of lawless, savage terrorism where local officials either could not or would not enforce the law.
Federal prosecution and conviction of a few perpetrators under the Enforcement Act led to a key Supreme Court case, United States v. Cruikshank. In this 1876 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that protections of the 14TH Amendment did not apply to the actions of individuals, but only to the actions of state governments. Thus, the Federal government could not use the Enforcement Act of 1870 to prosecute actions by groups such as private militias, rifle clubs, or the White League, which had chapters forming across Louisiana.
In August 1874, for instance, the White League committed a coup d’etat and pushed officeholders out in Coushatta, Red River Parish, assassinating the six white Republicans before they managed to leave, and killing five freedmen as witnesses. This was part of the means which white Democrats used to gain control in the 1876 elections and ultimately to dismantle Reconstruction in Louisiana.
In 1877, another coup d’etat occurred against black legislation and enfranchisement in Louisiana. That coup was led by a graduate of West Point: Francis Tillou Redding Nicholls, a Confederate general of the Civil War, and a member of the class of 1855. Commanding a veteran militia force of thousands of his fellow white Louisianans, Nicholls became governor of Louisiana by force of arms, overthrowing the Republican state government in New Orleans in 1877 and installing a system of one race/one party rule that lasted for nearly a century.
The Colfax Massacre had the highest recorded number of fatalities of a single event of mass racial violence in the Southern states during Reconstruction. A state highway marker erected in 1950 names the Colfax Riot, as the event was traditionally called. It states:
“On this site occurred the Colfax Riot in which three white men and 150 negroes were slain. This event on April 13, 1873 marked the end of carpetbag misrule in the South.”
An historical marker says that the massacre “marked the end of carpetbag misrule in the South.”
Plans are underway for an interpretive center and an official commemoration of the Grant Parish Courthouse grounds as a memorial to those who lost their lives in the violence. Manie White Johnnson, ( a white witness to the Massacre) in her dissertation “The Colfax Riot of April 1873”, speculates that there may have been four hundred killed. Her statements were published in booklet form in 1994 by Dogwood Press.
The Colfax Massacre should not be forgotten.
That so much vicious savagery was sanctioned by the state of Louisiana and the United States government should not be allowed to continue to insult and defame the deaths of the many men who put their lives on the line to bring true equality and law to a land that still clung to its hated belief in the subjugation of their fellow human beings.
“American Experience: Ulysses S. Grant: The Colfax Massacre” – PBS: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/amex/grant/peopleevents/e_colfax.html
“The Battle of Colfax”, by James K. Hogue: http://www.libertychapelcemetery.org/files/hogue-colfax.pdf
“Colfax Riot, Easter Sunday, April 13, 1873”: http://www.libertychapelcemetery.org/files/colfax2.htmlr
KKK Hearings of 1871, Georgia: http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/6225/
THE LOUISIANA COUP D’ETAT OF 1877: http://warhistorian.org/mershon/hogue-1877-coup.pdf
Slaughterhouse Cases: http://www.tourolaw.edu/patch/Slaughterhouse/
United States vs. Cruikshank: http://www.guncite.com/court/fed/sc/92us542.html