The Day Freedom Died: The Colfax Massacre

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

One hundred and forty-four years ago today one of the worst acts of terrorism against Americans by Americans was conducted by members of the White Leagues, a violent white supremacist group in Louisiana. This is from one of my Civil war texts and it is something not to forget in an age where violence against racial and religious minorities is again raising its head.

Have a good day,

Peace

Padre Steve+

The violence against Southern blacks escalated in the wake of the passage of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments and with the increasing number of blacks being elected to office in some Southern states during the elections of 1872. In Louisiana a Federal court ruled in favor of Republican Reconstruction candidates following a Democrat campaign to interfere with the vote, which included attacks on polling sites and the theft of ballot boxes. As a result the Louisiana Democrats “established a shadow government and organized paramilitary unit known as the White League to intimidate and attack black and white Republicans.” [1]

The White League in Louisiana was particularly brutal in its use of violence. The worst massacre committed by the White League occurred Easter Sunday 1873 when it massacred blacks in Colfax, Louisiana. Colfax was an isolated nondescript hamlet about three hundred fifty miles northwest of New Orleans. It sat on the grounds of a former plantation whose owner, William Calhoun, who worked with the former slaves who were now freedmen. The town itself “composed of only a few hundred white and black votes” [2] was located in the newly established Grant Parish. The “parish totaled about 4,500, of whom about 2,400 were Negroes living on the lowlands along the east bank of the Red.” [3] Between 1869 and 1873 the town and the parish were the scene of numerous violent incidents and following the 1872 elections, the whites of the parish were out for blood.

White leaders in Grant Parish “retaliated by unleashing a reign of terror in rural districts, forcing blacks to flee to Colfax for protection.” [4] The blacks of parish fled to the courthouse seeking protection from a violent white mob following the brutal murder of a black farmer and his family on the outskirts of town. The people of Colfax, protected by just a few armed black militiamen and citizens deputized by the sheriff took shelter in the courthouse knowing an attack by the White Supremacists was coming.  As the White League force assembled one of its leaders told his men what the day was about. He said, “Boys, this is a struggle for white supremacy….There are one hundred-sixty-five of us to go into Colfax this morning. God only knows who will come out. Those who do will probably be prosecuted for treason, and the punishment for treason is death.” [5] The attack by over 150 heavily armed men of the White League, most of whom were former Confederate soldiers, killed at least seventy-one and possibly as many as three-hundred blacks. Most of the victims were killed as they tried to surrender. The people, protected by just a few armed men were butchered or burned alive by the armed terrorist marauders. It was “the bloodiest peacetime massacre in nineteenth-century America.” [6]

The instigators of the attack claimed that they acted in self-defense. They claimed that “armed Negroes, stirred up by white Radical Republicans, seized the courthouse, throwing out the rightful officeholders: the white judge and sheriff” and they claimed that the blacks had openly proclaimed “their intention to kill all the white men, they boasted they would use white women to breed a new race.” [7] The claims were completely fabricated, after sending veteran former army officers who were serving in the Secret Service to investigate, the U.S. Attorney for Louisiana, J.R. Beckwith sent an urgent telegram to the Attorney General:

“The Democrats (White) of Grant Parish attempted to oust the incumbent parish officers by force and failed, the sheriff protecting the officers with a colored posse. Several days afterward recruits from other parishes, to the number of 300, came to the assistance of the assailants, when they demanded the surrender of the colored people. This was refused. An attack was made and the Negroes were driven into the courthouse. The courthouse was fired and the Negroes slaughtered as they left the burning building, after resistance ceased. Sixty-five Negroes terribly mutilated were found dead near the ruins of the courthouse. Thirty, known to have been taken prisoners, are said to have been shot after the surrender, and thrown into the river. Two of the assailants were wounded. The slaughter is greater than the riot of 1866 in this city. Will send report by mail.” [8]

Federal authorities arrested nine white men in the wake of the massacre and after two trials in which white majority juries were afraid to go against public opinion, three were “convicted of violating the Enforcement Act of 1871.” [9] None were convicted of murder despite the overwhelming evidence against them and even the lesser convictions enraged the White Supremacists in Louisiana who had employed the best lawyers possible and provided them and the defendants with unlimited financial backing. Assisted by the ruling of Supreme Court Associate Justice Joseph Bradley, who had a long history of neglecting Southern racism, white Democrats appealed the convictions to the Supreme Court.

The attack, and the court cases which followed, notably the judgment of the Supreme Court in United States v. Cruickshank which dealt with the appeal of the men responsible for the Colfax Massacre led to a “narrowing of Federal law enforcement authority” and were “milestones on the road to a “solid” Democratic South.” [10] The decision of the court in United States v. Cruikshank was particularly perverse in its interpretation of constitutional rights and protections. The court ruled in favor of the terrorists and declared that “the right of the black victims at Colfax to assemble hand not been guaranteed because they were neither petitioning Congress nor protesting a federal law. Assembling for any other cause was not protected.” [11] The Cruikshank decision amounted to a Supreme Court endorsement of violence against blacks, and made it “impossible for the federal government to prosecute crimes against blacks unless they were perpetrated by a state and unless it could prove a racial motive unequivocally.” [12] Northern politicians and newspapers, reeling under the effects of the stock market crash of 1873, which had denounced the massacre just a year before now ran from the story and from support of African Americans. A Republican office holder wrote, “The truth is, our people are tired out with this worn cry of ‘Southern outrages…. Hard times and heavy taxes make them wish the ‘nigger,’ the ‘everlasting nigger,’ were in hell or Africa.” [13] Racism and race hatred was not exclusively the parlance of the South.

In the wake of Justice Bradley’s reversal of the Colfax convictions whites in Grant Parish engaged in brutal reprisals against blacks, leading to many murders and lynching’s, crimes which law enforcement, even that favorable to the rights of African Americans were afraid to prosecute for fear of their own lives. Louisiana’s Republican Governor, William Pitt Kellogg wrote Attorney General Williams blaming the violence on Bradley’s ruling, which he wrote, “was regarded as establishing the principle that hereafter no white man could be punished for killing a negro, and as virtually wiping the Ku Klux laws of the statute books.” He added that with the Army leaving the state that his government and other Reconstruction governments would fall, “if Louisiana goes,” Kellogg wrote, “Mississippi will inevitably follow and, that end attained, all the results of the war so far as the colored people are concerned will be neutralized, all the reconstruction acts of Congress will be of no more value than so much waste paper and the colored people, though free in name, will be practically remitted back to servitude.” [14] Governor Kellogg could not have been more correct.

In the years that followed many of the men involved in the massacre and other murders before and after were hailed as heroes, some, including the leader of the attackers, Christopher Columbus Nash were again appointed to office in Colfax and Grant Parish and blacks were reminded every day of just what they had lost. On April 13th 1921 the men who committed the massacre were honored with a memorial in the Colfax cemetery honoring them as “Heroes… who fell in the Colfax Riot fighting for White Supremacy.” In 1951 the State of Louisiana Department of Commerce and Industry dedicated a marker outside the Courthouse which read: “On the 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.” [15] That marker still stands, there is no marker commemorating the victims.

Other massacres followed across the South, aimed at both blacks and their white Republican allies. In Louisiana the White League had some 14,000 men under arms, in many cases drilling as military units led by former Confederate officers. A White League detachment southwest of Shreveport “forced six white Republicans to resign their office on pain of death – and then brutally murdered them after they had resigned.” [16] This became known as the Coushatta Massacre and it was a watershed because for the first time the White League targeted whites as well as African Americans. The violence, now protected by the courts ensured that neither would last long in the post-Reconstruction South and that the freedom of African Americans in those states would amount to a cruel illusion.

In 1875, President Ulysses S. Grant including comments about the Colfax massacre and the subsequent court decisions in his message to Congress. Grant was angry and wrote: “Fierce denunciations ring through the country about office-holding and election matters in Louisiana…while every one of the Colfax miscreants goes unwhipped of justice, and no way can be found in this boasted land of civilization and Christianity to punish the perpetrators of this bloody and monstrous crime.” [17] President Grant, the man who so wanted to help African Americans attain the full measure of freedom, was unable to do more as the Congress and Courts took sides with the Southern insurgents.

Notes

[1] Ibid. Foner Forever Free p.151

[2] Ibid. Langguth After Lincoln p.312

[3] Ibid. Lane The Day Freedom Died p.42

[4] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.493

[5] Ibid. Lane The Day Freedom Died p.91

[6] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.493

[7] Ibid. Lane The Day Freedom Died p.11

[8] Ibid. Lane The Day Freedom Died p.22

[9] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.494

[10] Ibid. Lane The Day Freedom Died p.251

[11] Ibid. Langguth After Lincoln p.314

[12] Ibid. Goldfield American Aflame p.494

[13] Ibid. Lane The Day Freedom Died p.213

[14] Ibid. Lane The Day Freedom Died p.217

[15] Ibid. Lane The Day Freedom Died pp.261-262

[16] Ibid. McPherson The War that Forged a Nation p. 185

[17] Ibid. Lane The Day Freedom Died p.228

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Filed under civil rights, civil war, History, Political Commentary

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