Colfax riot or massacre: a brutal defining moment

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James Beckwith, an attorney who had witnessed the deaths of 34 Black people in the New Orleans massacre of 1868, obtained federal conspiracy convictions against three of the participants in the Colfax attack case. One was a man named William Cruikshank. But in 1876, the U.S. Supreme Court effectively overturned the convictions with a ruling known now as United States v. Cruikshank. The ruling said the new constitutional protections for civil rights protected individuals against state action, but not against action by other individuals.

Cruikshank in particular required federal law enforcement to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that conspiracies to limit voting rights, for example, were racially motivated, Lane said. “(The offender) almost had to say, ‘There goes a black person and I’m going to stop him from voting.’ That puts a heavy burden on the prosecution.”

The motives of the Supreme Court justices, seven Republican appointees among them, weren’t necessarily sinister, Lane said. He noted that the idea of federal law enforcement was new. The Department of Justice didn’t exist until 1870.

“Supreme Court justices were wrestling with a whole new set of concepts,” Lane said.

Also, he said, Louisiana’s Reconstruction constitution was a progressive document that included civil rights protections

“You could convince yourself that state governments had all the power they needed to protect civil rights,” Lane said. “They didn’t take into account the atmosphere in Louisiana and Mississippi and South Carolina.”

Violence against Blacks “became an almost normal thing in political life in the South on and off from 1868 right on down to the end of Reconstruction in 1876 or ’77,” Yale’s Blight said. “And the only way it could have been prevented, or for that matter prosecuted, was by federal action.

The limits on federal enforcement power emboldened the southern state governments that set about institutionalizing discrimination.

“The United States v. Cruikshank,” Avery Hamilton said, “had as real an impact on black America as Plessy v. Ferguson or Brown v. Board of Education.”

 

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