Colfax, Louisiana is what the New York Times calls a 'flyspeck' town. Today the town is remembered for the 'Colfax Riot' when, in 1873, white supremacists massacred scores of former slaves. In 1921 those killers who themselves lost their lives, three of them, were venerated by an obelisk erected in the town cemetery.
Two blocks off Main Street, a 12-foot marble obelisk is the focal point of the Colfax cemetery. An inscription carved into its base declares it was “erected to the memory of the heroes” who “fell in the Colfax Riot fighting for white supremacy.” On the north side of the present-day courthouse, a historical marker reads, “On this site occurred the Colfax Riot in which three white men and 150 negroes were slain” and added that the episode “marked the end of carpetbag misrule in the South.”
After the Civil War, Colfax became ensnared in a vicious political melee between abolitionist Republicans who supported Reconstruction and recalcitrant, pro-slavery Democrats determined to redeem the Lost Cause of the Confederacy. The 13th Amendment (ratified in 1865), the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the 14th Amendment (ratified in 1868) promised to give Black Americans freedom, citizenship and the same protections and privileges afforded other citizens.
But those promises vanished as Southern states not only refused to enforce these laws, but also passed new laws such as the so-called Black Codes intended to derail Reconstruction. The Ku Klux Klan, founded in 1865, joined other white terrorist groups devoted to the “better preservation of the white race and to see that white blood was handed down unmixed with the offensive globule of African blood.
The election mayhem spilled over into Colfax, seat of Grant Parish, where Republican candidates, sympathetic to Black freedmen, assumed their rightful offices in the parish courthouse. This provoked a homicidal revolt by supporters of the Democratic candidates. Several hundred heavily armed white supremacists from throughout Louisiana traveled to Colfax bent on taking control of the courthouse, prompting local freedmen to gather in the brick building and defend it from attack, even though they were vastly outgunned.
When the white mob advanced, the murderous frenzy of their assault prompted the Black men to raise a flag of surrender, but the berserk marauders ignored it. They set fire to the courthouse roof and slaughtered almost every freedman who emerged from the flaming building to surrender. Those who remained inside were burned alive. The exact number of victims was never determined.There was a trial and a re-trial. One US Attorney for Louisiana had to prosecute the charges against 98 accused opposed by "an all star team of White Supremacist defense attorneys." Needless to say the outcome was a hung jury.
In a re-trial a federal jury convicted just three of the accused of violating the victims' civil rights. Fortunately for the convicted, the US Supreme Court still had a good percentage of anti-reconstructionist/anti-abolitionist judges. By the time they were through, every one was acquitted and the power of the federal government to prosecute crimes against the formerly enslaved was severely limited.
Given free rein by the Supreme Court, white supremacists continued their coordinated campaign of terror against Black people, hastening the demise of Reconstruction. By 1877, every Southern state had been “redeemed,” and they would remain under the control of their white redeemers for decades.Here is what is inscribed on the base of the Colfax obelisk:
Those three men who died "fighting for white supremacy," Parish, Hadnot and Harris, are still venerated on that obelisk to this day.
A straight line can be drawn from Colfax and Cruikshank to the race riots in East St. Louis in 1917 and in Omaha, Chicago and other cities two years later; to the abhorrent crimes committed in the 1921 Tulsa race massacre; to the criminal brutality unleashed on African-Americans in Selma and Birmingham, Ala., in the 1960s; to the present-day instances of police and white nationalist violence in Ferguson, Mo., Charlottesville, Va., and now Kenosha, Wis.; to the shameful, plain-sight attempts to suppress the Black vote in the 2020 elections. Lest we forget that white supremacy and racial injustice are still endemic in America, we need to remember Colfax and the lasting harm it wrought.Trump is playing to a following steeped in this filth. Conspiracy theorists, racists, xenophobes, misogynists, Christo-fascists, collectively described as his "base." For Trump and his 'deplorables,' the Civil War is still unfinished business.
I've been looking into civil unrest in the decade preceding the Civil War. The parallels to what is happening today are interesting and I hope to deal with some of them in future posts.