The Day Freedom Died: The Colfax Massacre, the Supreme Court, and the Betrayal of Reconstruction


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In this electrifying piece of historical detective work, a "Washington Post" reporter re-creates the bloody days of Reconstruction as evidenced by an 1873 massacre of former slaves in Colfax, Louisiana. Unabridged. 1 MP3 CD.

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Jun 24, 2017

A Study Of The Colfax Massacre

On April 13, 1873, Easter Sunday, a white posse of about 150 killed over 60 African Americans in a small town in central Louisiana on the Red River in what became known as the Colfax Massacre. The U.S. Attorney for Louisiana, James Beckwith, brought prosecutions against some of the perpetuators under Federal laws enacted to enforce the Reconstruction amendments. After a mistrial, Beckwith retried the defendants and secured three convictions. The defendants appealed to the Supreme Court which unanimously reversed the convictions in a case known as United States v. Cruickshank, decided in 1876. The case severely limited the power of the Federal government to enforce Reconstruction in the South. Indeed, it effectively ended Reconstruction. In his book, "The Day Freedom Died: The Colfax Massacre, the Supreme Court, and the Betrayal of Reconstruction" (2008) Charles Lane offers a detailed factual and legal history of this critical, little-known event in American history. Lane wrote the book while working as a journalist covering the Supreme Court for the Washington Post.

Lane writes of the Colfax Massacre: "[I]n the entire bloody epoch of Reconstruction, there might never have been a bloodier one-day incident of white terror than this frenzied killing on Easter Sunday." Understanding the Colfax Massacre requires consideration of complex facts involving many groups and individuals. Thus, Lane begins his account with a "Cast of Characters". Lane divides the protagonists into seven groups: the Republicans, White Supremacists, Politicians, Judges, Lawmen, Lawyers, and Soldiers. This introductory division allows the reader to get to know the main characters and groups in what took place at the Colfax Courthouse. Understanding the events also requires a background in the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments and the laws Congress passed to enforce them, which Lane provides in his book. Most fundamentally, understanding the Colfax Massacre requires familiarity with Reconstruction and with the broad disagreement in the United States about the proper scope of post-Civil War policy. This disagreement lies at the heart of Lane's book.

The central character and hero of Lane's history is James Beckwith, the U.S. Attorney in New Orleans from 1870 -- 1877. Upon learning of the events at Colfax, Beckwith hired an undercover agent from the Secret Service to work in the community and to learn what took place. With only mild support from Washington, D.C., Beckwith a took the massacre before a Grand Jury, arrested nine of the protagonists and put them on trial for their lives. He developed the case using, out of necessity, African American witnesses almost exclusively and, after a mistrial, retried eight of the defendants, securing three convictions. His actions, Lane argues, required great courage, legal skill, perseverance, and a commitment to the goals of the Civil War and Reconstruction.

In Lane's account, the Colfax Massacre resulted from a political conflict between Reconstructionists and white supremacist southerners. After a disagreement over the results of state elections in 1872, African Americans had occupied the Colfax Courthouse. Local whites organized a posse consisting in part of supremacist, terror organizations. They forced the African Americans into the courthouse, set it on fire, and fired upon them when the African Americans raised a white flag of surrender and tried to leave the burning courthouse. Then, the supremacists took prisoners, and shot them in the back, in groups of two, in the dead of night. A small number escaped and with other witnesses testified at the trial.

The facts of the Massacre are complex and Lane devotes about one-half of the book to their development and background in Reconstruction Era Louisiana. The story is convoluted and difficult to follow in places. After developing his understanding of what transpired, Lane turns to the legal history of the case.

Lane describes the trials in great detail. He also develops the underlying law to assist the reader in understanding the result. In addition to the trial judge, who presided, William Woods, Supreme Court Justice Joseph Bradley rode circuit and participated in the retrial. He delivered a legal opinion which basically held that the Federal courts had no legal authority to try the defendants for what were, Justice Bradley concluded, essentially state crimes. Lane describes Bradley's opinion in depth. Courageously, Judge Woods did not agree with Justice Bradley. The case went to the Supreme Court for resolution. Lane again describes closely the Supreme Court proceedings and the resulting unanimous opinion in the 1876 Cruikshank case. The effect of Cruikshank was to end, in most circumstances, the possibility of Federal enforcement of Reconstruction. The disputed presidential election of 1876, which formally ended Reconstruction, reinforced this result.

The factual background developed in this book about Louisiana Reconstruction politics and about Colfax are at times difficult to follow, but Lane's points and analysis come through clearly. The descriptions of the trials and of the law are lucid for a difficult subject. The book describes a specific event late in the Reconstruction period and can best be read by those with a good basic understanding of the Civil War and Reconstruction and of the sometimes competing goals of preserving the Union on the one hand and ending slavery and enforcing the rights of the Freedpeople on the other hand which resulted in differing views of the goals of both the Civil War and Reconstruction. "The Day Freedom Died" is an important, difficult book about a seminal, lasting issue in American history.

Robin Friedman

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