Justice  /  Retrieval

The Massacre That Emboldened White Supremacists

The 1873 murders of dozens of former slaves in a flyspeck Louisiana town still reverberate.

An hour after sunset on Easter Sunday in 1873, a stern-wheel riverboat put ashore at Colfax, La., a ramshackle settlement surrounded by cotton plantations on the east bank of the Red River. Rain was falling. As passengers disembarked, they found themselves stumbling in the dark over what turned out to be the lifeless bodies of African-Americans who had been freed from slavery eight years earlier at the conclusion of the Civil War.

Most of the dead were lying facedown in the grass “and had been shot almost to pieces,” according to Charles Lane in his book “The Day Freedom Died: The Colfax Massacre, The Supreme Court, and the Betrayal of Reconstruction.” Others had been bludgeoned or mutilated, and some had burned to death. Flames rose from the ruins of the parish courthouse. The stench of charred human flesh was inescapable.

As Americans debate the merit of tearing down monuments to founding fathers, a monument to the men who massacred Black Americans in Colfax 147 years ago stands unopposed and largely unnoticed. Two blocks off Main Street, a 12-foot marble obelisk is the focal point of the Colfax cemetery. An inscription carved into its base declares it was “erected to the memory of the heroes” who “fell in the Colfax Riot fighting for white supremacy.” On the north side of the present-day courthouse, a historical marker reads, “On this site occurred the Colfax Riot in which three white men and 150 negroes were slain” and added that the episode “marked the end of carpetbag misrule in the South.”

These memorials to the perpetrators of mass murder are disturbing enough in their own right. But the impact of the Colfax massacre extended far beyond this flyspeck town. The damage is still felt acutely throughout our entire nation, and the tragedy must not be forgotten.

After the Civil War, Colfax became ensnared in a vicious political melee between abolitionist Republicans who supported Reconstruction and recalcitrant, pro-slavery Democrats determined to redeem the Lost Cause of the Confederacy. The 13th Amendment (ratified in 1865), the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the 14th Amendment (ratified in 1868) promised to give Black Americans freedom, citizenship and the same protections and privileges afforded other citizens.

But those promises vanished as Southern states not only refused to enforce these laws, but also passed new laws such as the so-called Black Codes intended to derail Reconstruction. The Ku Klux Klan, founded in 1865, joined other white terrorist groups devoted to the “better preservation of the white race and to see that white blood was handed down unmixed with the offensive globule of African blood.”

Open season was declared on Blacks throughout the South. According to an investigation by Gen. Philip Sheridan in 1875, “2,141 Negroes had been killed by whites in Louisiana and 2,115 wounded” since the end of the Civil War, yet no one was punished for those crimes. The 1872 elections in ...