By Malcolm Suber
One of the bloodiest incidents in the struggle of the newly freed African people in Louisiana occurred in Colfax, LA (Grant Parish) on Easter Sunday, 1873. This assault is one of the largest racist massacres in US history. The Ku Klux Klan and white supremacists organized by the Democratic Party as the White League sought to destroy the political rule of the Black majority Republican Party that controlled Grant Parish. More than 150 Black men were murdered by the white supremacists, 37 of whom were executed after surrendering.
In the wake of the contested 1872 election for governor of Louisiana and for local offices, a group of white Democrats armed with rifles and small cannons outgunned Black Republican freedmen and the Black militia of Grant Parish who were trying to defend Black office holders in the Courthouse. The white supremacists had sworn they would execute any Black elected official they apprehended.
Historian Eric Foner described the masscre as the worst instance of racial violence during Reconstruction. According to Foner, “every election [in Louisiana] between 1868 and 1876 was marked by rampant violence and pervasive fraud.”
Under the 1870 Enforcement Act, federal prosecution and conviction of a few Colfax perpetrators was appealed to the Supreme Court. In a key case that led to the abandonment of the freedmen by the federal government, the court ruled in United States v. Cruikshank (1876) that protections of the Fourteenth Amendment did not apply to actions of individuals, but only to actions of state governments. After this ruling, the federal government could no longer use the Enforcement Act to prosecute paramilitary groups such as the White League, which had begun forming chapters across Louisiana in 1874. Intimidation and Black voter suppression by white supremacist organizations were instrumental to the Democratic Party regaining political control of the Legislature in the elections of 1876.