When the white mob advanced, the murderous frenzy of their assault prompted the Black men to raise a flag of surrender, but the berserk marauders ignored it. They set fire to the courthouse roof and slaughtered almost every freedman who emerged from the flaming building to surrender. Those who remained inside were burned alive. The exact number of victims was never determined.
The Colfax massacre was ghastly, and so was its aftermath. A young, white New York lawyer named J.R. Beckwith had recently been appointed U.S. attorney for Louisiana; he got the job of prosecuting the Colfax murders. Beckwith’s 150 pages of indictments listed 32 counts and named 98 defendants. After six months, with no help from the federal government he represented, Beckwith had managed to arrest only seven of the defendants. The first trial, in March of 1874 in New Orleans, featured an eloquent and capable Beckwith doing battle against an all-star team of white-supremacist trial attorneys. It resulted in a hung jury.
In the retrial a few months later, a federal jury found just three defendants guilty of conspiring to violate the civil rights of the victims. A U.S. Supreme Court justice, Joseph P. Bradley, who opposed the abolition of slavery and despised Reconstruction, had participated in the first days of the retrial as a second judge while riding circuit, as justices did in those days, then departed. But three weeks after the trial was over, he came back to New Orleans and overturned even the minimal conspiracy verdicts. The split decision sent the case, U.S. v. Cruikshank, to the Supreme Court.
In March 1876, Bradley and his fellow Supreme Court justices decreed that he was correct in rescinding the convictions of William Cruikshank and the other white defendants, ruling that although the 14th Amendment gave the federal government authority to act against violations of civil rights by state governments, it did not apply to acts of racist violence by private citizens against other citizens. Furthermore, the court ludicrously declared, the prosecution failed to show that crimes against the murdered Black men were committed “on account of their race or color.” All 98 defendants escaped accountability, emboldening white supremacists across the land.
The Cruikshank decision reinforced a grotesque judicial precedent that severely limited the power of the federal government to prosecute violent crimes against the formerly enslaved. Given free rein by the Supreme Court, white supremacists continued their coordinated campaign of terror against Black people, hastening the demise of Reconstruction. By 1877, every Southern state had been “redeemed,” and they would remain under the control of their white redeemers for decades.
By eviscerating crucial protections of the 14th Amendment, the Cruikshank ruling ensured that the most basic constitutional rights of Black citizens would be denied well into the 20th century. The crabbed, inhumane logic of Cruikshank provided legal cover that allowed systemic racism to flourish and denied civil rights to millions of Americans, perpetuating what John Lewis called a “soul-wrenching, existential struggle.”
A straight line can be drawn from Colfax and Cruikshank to the race riots in East St. Louis in 1917 and in Omaha, Chicago and other cities two years later; to the abhorrent crimes committed in the 1921 Tulsa race massacre; to the criminal brutality unleashed on African-Americans in Selma and Birmingham, Ala., in the 1960s; to the present-day instances of police and white nationalist violence in Ferguson, Mo., Charlottesville, Va., and now Kenosha, Wis.; to the shameful, plain-sight attempts to suppress the Black vote in the 2020 elections. Lest we forget that white supremacy and racial injustice are still endemic in America, we need to remember Colfax and the lasting harm it wrought.
William Briggs is an emeritus professor of mathematics at the University of Colorado, Denver, and author of “How America Got Its Guns: A History of Gun Violence in America.” Jon Krakauer is the author of numerous books, including “Into Thin Air” and “Missoula.”
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