On this dayApr 01, 1875

Louisiana Lynch Mob Claims Federal Law Cannot Punish Them; Supreme Court Later Agrees

Image | Flickr, Stephen Conn

On April 1, 1875, the Supreme Court finished hearing arguments in United States v. Cruikshank, a case that asked whether the federal government had the power to punish white men convicted of slaughtering dozens of black people in Louisiana.

Two years earlier, on April 13, 1873, hundreds of white men clashed with formerly enslaved black men at the Grant Parish courthouse in Colfax, Louisiana. It is estimated that nearly 150 black people died in the ensuing struggle - many murdered in cold blood after surrendering. Only three white men died. 

The massacre was precipitated by the hotly contested 1872 Louisiana gubernatorial election. When a federal judge declared William Kellogg the winner, he began making appointments to fill local parish offices. Meanwhile, Kellogg’s white supremacist opponent John McEnery and his supporters declared McEnery the winner of the election. In the ensuing unrest, black supporters of Kellogg surrounded the Grant Parish courthouse and other municipal buildings in Colfax to prevent McEnery's supporters from taking them over.

In response, more than 300 armed white men attacked the courthouse building to forcefully remove Kellogg's black supporters. When the white mob aimed a cannon to fire on the courthouse, some of the sixty black defenders fled; others surrendered then, and more surrendered after the courthouse was set on fire. Many surrendering, unarmed black men were nevertheless shot and killed by the white mob -- some while fleeing.

After the massacre, the federal government indicted over 100 members of the white mob under the Enforcement Act of 1870. The law was specifically enacted during Reconstruction to protect newly freed black voters from the terrorist threats of the Ku Klux Klan and other disgruntled white southerners. Only three members of the mob were convicted, and they appealed.

The Supreme Court heard arguments and, several months later, issued a ruling dismissing charges against the three white men. The Court held that the Fourteenth Amendment was only a protection against state actions, and did not empower the federal government to punish the acts of one citizen towards another not clearly motivated by racial animus. In the eyes of the Court, racialized political violence did not qualify.

The Cruikshank decision severely limited the federal government's authority to legally enforce black civil rights and protect black citizens from racial terror at the hands of mobs intent on restoring white racial dominance in the post-civil war South.

To this day there is a historical marker on the site of the massacre that refers to it as the "end of carpetbag misrule in the South."

Colfax Riot Marker

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