The Colfax Massacre 1873
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)
Colfax Massacre Civil War
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)
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.
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.”
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.