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

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The Day Freedom Died, subtitled "The Colfax Massacre, the Supreme Court, and the Betrayal of Reconstruction", published in 2008 is the first book by American journalist Charles Lane, and deals with the Colfax massacre of 1873 in Louisiana and its political repercussions during Reconstruction, including the resulting Supreme Court case, United States v. Cruikshank.

Background[edit]

The violence followed conflict in the state over the disputed 1872 gubernatorial election, when differing parties concluded that the Democrat John McEnery or the Republican William Pitt Kellogg had won. While reviews were pending, each candidate certified slates of local officers, increasing social tensions in many areas. It was months before Grant weighed in on behalf of Kellogg.

The real issues were the continuing struggle for power between conservative white Democrats and freedmen and other Republicans. Grant Parish was one of several in northwest Louisiana newly established in 1869 during Reconstruction. It had a black majority and took in both plantations and upland timber areas. Most of the freedmen were former slaves on local plantations. Social tensions were high; as a result of the disputed election, the competing governors each certified lists of local Republican and Democratic officials. Republicans reclaimed local offices which they had won. Freedmen, including members of the state militia, gathered in Colfax at the parish courthouse to defend Republican officials from Democratic takeover.

During days of rising tensions, rumors ran wild on both sides. Black families gathered at the courthouse after a man was killed in an outer area. At the same time, whites became alarmed and formed a militia made up of veterans from Grant, Winn and nearby parishes. On Easter Sunday, white militia attacked the Colfax courthouse held by freedmen; in the end, they killed more than 80 freedmen, 50 of them that evening, after they had surrendered and been taken prisoner.

Lane's approach[edit]

Lane describes the events leading up to the massacre, but he especially focuses on the political repercussions of prosecution of members of the white militia for the deaths of the freedmen. The U.S. Attorney in New Orleans James R. Beckwith struggled to achieve justice for those who had been slain. Two trials resulted in a case that was appealed to the Supreme Court, United States v. Cruikshank (1876). Lane focuses on James R. Beckwith and his persistence with a case so controversial that his life and career were threatened. The Court ruled against the plaintiffs, saying that actions by individuals were not covered by constitutional protections, and they should seek relief in state courts. During and for many decades after Reconstruction, white men were seldom prosecuted and almost never convicted for murders of blacks.