By Hasan Kwame Jeffries, The Ohio State University
Tensions ran high in Grant Parish, Louisiana, ahead of the 1872 gubernatorial election. Former Confederates, who filled the ranks of the Democratic Party, looked to oust the Black and white Republican coalition that controlled the state government. Some 4,600 ballots were cast on Election Day. The returns mirrored results for the rest of the state: a close but clear victory for Republicans.
The Colfax Massacre
Defeat did not sit well with the Democrats. They questioned the legitimacy of the election because they did not believe that African Americans had a right to vote. In Colfax, the seat of Grant Parish, white men plotted to overthrow the local government. Inspired by the Ku Klux Klan, they formed their own racial terror group, the White League, and announced plans to march on the Parish courthouse and seize control.
To prevent a coup from occurring, a Black militia composed of former Union soldiers marched on the courthouse in advance of the White League. When the armed Black men arrived, they took up defensive positions and waited.
On April 13, 1873—Easter Sunday—about 150 White League members and sympathizers showed up with Confederate-issued weapons, including a cannon. It wasn’t long before they opened fire, letting loose a blistering volley of pistol, rifle, and cannon shots. The Black militia held off the siege as long as they could, but the white mob had them outgunned, making surrender the only way out.
But when the former Union soldiers laid down their arms and exited the building, they were massacred. Those who had been wounded during the shootout were hanged; the others were shot. The number of African Americans killed that day was somewhere between 60 and 150.
United States v. Cruikshank
Like many Northerners, Republican President Ulysses S. Grant was outraged by the blatant disregard for the rule of law and infuriated by the contempt shown for African American civil rights.
He immediately sent troops to Grant Parish to restore order and hold those responsible for the massacre accountable. But only nine members of the mob were charged and went to trial for violating the Enforcement Acts, the pair of federal laws passed in 1870 and 1871, designed to curb racial terrorism by forbidding conspiracies to deny constitutional rights of citizens.
But justice proved fleeting. In 1876, the Supreme Court overturned the defendants’ convictions. In United States v. Cruikshank, the court ruled that individuals could not be guilty of violating Fourteenth Amendment rights to due process and equal protection under the law because the amendment applied only to states, not individuals.
The impact of the high court’s opinion would be felt far beyond Colfax. By narrowly interpreting the Fourteenth Amendment, the ruling limited the federal government’s ability to protect African Americans’ civil rights, sending a clear signal to white Southerners hell-bent on ending Reconstruction that they could do whatever they needed to do to restore white supremacist rule.
This article comes directly from content in the video series African American History: From Emancipation through Jim Crow. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
White Northerners vs. White Southerners vs. African Americans
The Colfax Massacre was not inconsistent with the times. In the years after the Civil War, white Southerners embraced violence with alarming frequency as they attempted to limit the gains that freed people had made. At the same time, federal officials increasingly turned a blind eye to violations of African Americans’ civil rights.
These developments were not inevitable, but they were predictable because white Southerners and white Northerners imagined Reconstruction completely differently. They also saw it in ways that conflicted with African Americans’ vision of freedom. African Americans believed that Reconstruction should advance their freedom rights agenda. They insisted that federal and state policies promote Black economic independence, support civil rights, and lead to Black political power.
White Northerners thought otherwise. After the devastation wrought by the war, their primary concern was jump-starting the Southern economy and strengthening the Republican Party. If that meant setting aside the freedom rights agenda of African Americans, then so be it. White Southerners were guided by a different vision. They carried an enslaver’s mentality into the postwar era, a set of beliefs derived from generations of African Americans held in bondage.
The conflicting views about the core objectives of Reconstruction reflected fundamental beliefs that shaped the contours of each group’s approach to freedom. In this way, they determined the fate of Reconstruction and the fortunes of freed people.
White Northerners, led by congressional Republicans, understood that the key to getting the Southern economy up and running again was Black agricultural labor, the workforce the South had relied on for generations to plant and harvest cash crops such as cotton and tobacco. But white Northerners did not believe that African Americans were capable of working effectively on their own.
Just like white Southerners, they were of the mind that Black people were lazy, incompetent, and incapable of making the land productive without white supervision. This, of course, was absurd. Having labored on the land their entire lives, African Americans were expert farmers. They knew how to make land productive, partly from muscle memory and partly from semantic memory, having inherited traditional West African agricultural expertise about how to cultivate crops like rice that white people knew nothing about.
For 250 years, African Americans improved the land. When the Day of Jubilee finally arrived, they didn’t suddenly forget how to use a plow. But white Northerners, blinded by their own belief in white supremacy, ignored the obvious—that African Americans were fully capable of farming independently.
Common Questions about the Republican Coalition and African Americans after the Civil War
In the aftermath of the 1872 gubernatorial election in Grant Parish, Louisiana, which was in favor of the Republican coalition, a racial terrorist group called the White League plotted to overthrow the local government. To stop this, a group of Black men who had fought in the civil war arrived before the White League to defend against them. They were outnumbered and eventually surrendered, but the White League still massacred all who surrendered.
President Ulysses S. Grant sent troops to restore order in Grant Parish and hold those who massacred people responsible. In the end, only nine people were charged. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court Justice let the charges go on the grounds that the Fourteenth Amendment was only applicable to states, not individuals.
White Northerners believed that African Americans were too lazy to work without white supervision over their labor. Even though the Black and white Republican coalition were seemingly on the same side, many white Northerners still believed in their own supremacy.