The untold story of the slaying of a Southern town's ex-slaves and a white lawyer's historic battle to bring the perpretators to justice
Following the Civil War, Colfax, Louisiana, was a town, like many, where African Americans and whites mingled uneasily. But on April 13, 1873, a small army of white ex–Confederate soldiers, enraged after attempts by freedmen to assert their new rights, killed more than sixty African Americans who had occupied a courthouse. With skill and tenacity, The Washington Post's Charles Lane transforms this nearly forgotten incident into a riveting historical saga.
Seeking justice for the slain, one brave U.S. attorney, James Beckwith, risked his life and career to investigate and punish the perpetrators—but they all went free. What followed was a series of courtroom dramas that culminated at the Supreme Court, where the justices' verdict compromised the victories of the Civil War and left Southern blacks at the mercy of violent whites for generations. The Day Freedom Died is an electrifying piece of historical detective work that captures a gallery of characters from presidents to townspeople, and re-creates the bloody days of Reconstruction, when the often brutal struggle for equality moved from the battlefield into communities across the nation.
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About the Author
Charles Lane discovered the Colfax Massacre case while covering the Supreme Court for The Washington Post. His journalism career has taken him from Washington to Tokyo, Berlin to Bosnia, Havana to Johannesburg. A former editor of The New Republic, Lane has written for Foreign Affairs, The New York Review of Books, and The Atlantic. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard and studied law at Yale. He lives in the Washington, D.C., area.
Charles Lane learned about the Colfax Massacre case while covering the Supreme Court for The Washington Post. A former correspondent for Newsweek and editor of The New Republic, Lane has reported from Japan, Latin America, Europe, and southern Africa. His essays have appeared in Foreign Affairs, The New York Review of Books, and The Atlantic. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard and studied law at Yale. He lives in the Washington, D.C., area.
Read an Excerpt
At ten o’clock in the morning on March 4, 1873—Inauguration Day—the president and first lady emerged from the White House and headed for their carriage, a grand four-wheeled barouche pulled by four horses. Washington was draped in red-white-and-blue flags, pennants, and bunting; bold triumphal arches, fashioned out of intertwined flags from around the world, spanned the streets. Pennsylvania Avenue, swept clean, stretched like a bright ribbon to the Capitol, where, at noon, Ulysses Simpson Grant would take the oath of office for the second time.
A blue sky lifted spirits, but, as one reporter noted, “its sunny promise of Spring was contradicted by a fierce north wind that seemed the very breath of Winter.” The gale roared at forty miles per hour, making four degrees above zero (the official temperature at dawn) feel like thirty below. Grant and his wife, Julia Dent Grant, pressed together on the leather bench of the open barouche as more than two hundred West Point cadets marched ahead of them in cloth dress gray uniforms. One of the shivering young men collapsed and had to be rushed indoors.
Thousands had journeyed to Washington from out of town; the hotels were sold out, even after filling their hallways and lobbies with extra beds. The visitors, not a few of whom employed whiskey against the cold, waited all along the avenue to salute the Civil War hero they had reelected the previous November. No group cheered Grant more heartily than the Negro men and women who lined his route. These members of the audience could point with pride to the Lincoln Zouaves, a colored military unit from Baltimore, resplendent in their tasseled fezzes, baggy red pants, white leggings, and red-trimmed black jackets. Colored spectators sang along when musicians struck up “Marching Through Georgia,” the Civil War ditty celebrating General William Tecumseh Sherman’s drive from Atlanta to the sea. “Hurrah! Hurrah! The jubilee has come,” they chorused. “We’ll all join the Union and fight for Uncle Sam! Sherman’s marching through Georgia.”
Negro support for Grant was an expression of hope—the fervent belief that only Grant and his Republican Party, the party of Lincoln, could keep America’s promise of equal rights for all men. Lincoln had been the first president to invite Negro participation in the inaugural pageant; Grant was the second. But for Grant, freedom and equal rights were matters of principle, not symbolism. More than even the most progressive-minded white Americans of his time, he rejected prejudice. “I don’t know why a black skin may not cover a true heart as well as a white one,” he said. He knew his soldiers had sacrificed not only to hold the nation together but also to make men free. He did not want those sacrifices to have been in vain.
The North might not have won the Civil War without Grant, and his contributions to the liberation of four million people of color had continued. But at first, Reconstruction was directed by Andrew Johnson, the Tennessee tailor who became vice president in March 1865, then succeeded Lincoln after his assassination a month later. Johnson had ceded control of Southern state legislatures to former Confederates, who in turn enacted Black Codes that all but reenslaved the freedmen. The codes contradicted the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery when ratified in December 1865, and Johnson faced growing resistance from a “Radical” Republican Congress—culminating in the Reconstruction Act adopted on March 2, 1867, over Johnson’s veto. The legislation required Southern states to repeal the Black Codes and recognize the political equality of Negroes—both by granting them the vote and by ratifying the Fourteenth Amendment, which, for the first time, made Negroes citizens with the same rights as white people.
Grant, too, resisted Johnson’s version of Reconstruction. As the U.S. Army’s top-ranking officer, Grant had encouraged his generals in the South to enforce the Reconstruction Act strictly, especially its provisions on voter registration, which barred unrepentant ex-rebel officials from voting. He occasionally supplied troops to put down violence against the freedmen and authorized the military to make arrests for racial offenses where civilian law enforcement had broken down. In 1868, when Johnson provoked his impeachment and near conviction in the Senate by trying to fire the Radical Republican secretary of war, Edwin Stanton, Grant backed Stanton. After his own successful campaign for president in 1868, Grant lobbied hard for the Fifteenth Amendment, which required states to let all eligible voters cast a ballot, regardless of race. It was controversial not only in the South but also in the North, where many states still banned or restricted voting by colored men.
Negro voting rights were politically necessary for Grant and his party. Before the Civil War, the Republicans were exclusively a Northern party; but afterward, they would have to win elections in the South, state and federal, lest the Southern-based Democratic Party retake control of the federal government and reverse the Union victory. And the Republicans could not do that unless Negroes, their natural—and most numerous—constituency, were free to vote.
Grant’s enthusiasm for the Fifteenth Amendment, though, went beyond expediency. When it won ratification, on February 3, 1870, he exulted that the people had completed the eradication of the notorious Dred Scott decision, handed down by the Supreme Court in 1857, which had decreed that neither slaves nor free men of color could be citizens of the United States. He called the amendment “a measure of grander importance than any other one act of the kind from the foundation of our free government to the present day.”
And President Grant tackled the Ku Klux Klan.
Southern freedmen lived in poverty after the civil war, but so did most of the region’s whites, for whom economic misery was compounded by the shock and humiliation of defeat. Searching for companionship amid the devastation, some ex-Confederates formed clubs where they could drink, reminisce, and complain. One such group, founded in Pulaski, Tennessee, in late 1865, grew into a secret society with “dens” across the southeastern United States. By 1870, most white men in that part of the country either belonged to the organization or sympathized with it. “This is an institution of Chivalry, Humanity, Mercy and Patriotism, embodying in its genius and its principles all that is chivalric in conduct, noble in sentiment, generous in manhood and patriotic in purpose,” the Ku Klux Klan declared. Its goals were to “protect the weak, innocent and defenseless,” and “to protect and defend the constitution of the United States.” Actually, the Klan aimed to terrorize all Negroes and the white Republicans who supported them.
In 1868, the Klan assassinated a Negro Republican congressman in Arkansas and three black Republican members of the South Carolina legislature—and in Camilla, Georgia, four hundred Klansmen, led by the sheriff, fired on a black election parade and hunted the countryside for those who fled, eventually killing or wounding more than twenty people. A Klan-led “nigger chase” in Laurens County, South Carolina, claimed thirteen lives in the fall of 1870. Thanks in part to Klan intimidation of Republican voters—white and black—Democrats had returned to power in Alabama, Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Georgia in the 1870 elections. This only seemed to encourage more Klan terror elsewhere. In January 1871, five hundred masked men attacked the Union County jail in South Carolina and lynched eight black prisoners. In March 1871, the Klan killed thirty Negroes in Meridian, Mississippi.
For Grant and the Republican Congress, tolerating the Klan was out of the question, but the Northern public was in no mood for a new war against it, either. The only alternative was to treat white terrorism as a crime—to investigate the Klan, identify its murderers, and try them in federal courts. The problem was that fighting crime had always been a state function; federal law enforcement was still an unfamiliar concept in mid-nineteenth-century America. Even many Republicans doubted its constitutionality.
Nevertheless, the Fourteenth Amendment said Congress had the power to enforce civil rights, and the Fifteenth Amendment said Congress had the power to protect qualified Negro voters from discrimination. On May 31, 1870, invoking the new amendments as authority, Congress passed the Enforcement Act, which made racist terrorism a federal offense. To help put it into effect, Grant and Congress created the Department of Justice, with authority over all federal civil and criminal cases. Its first leader, Attorney General Amos T. Akerman, was a Republican who had been born in New Hampshire but settled in Georgia before the war. He loathed the Klan. “These combinations amount to war,” he said, “and cannot be effectually crushed under any other theory.”
When Klan violence persisted, Grant had sought more authority from Congress, personally lobbying for amendments known as the Ku Klux Klan Act. Enacted on April 20, 1871, the legislation imposed heavy new penalties and branded the Klan an “insurrection” and a “rebellion” against the United States. For the remainder of his first term, the president would be empowered to suspend the writ of habeas corpus anywhere state and local authorities had fallen under the sway of Klan “insurgents.” In such cases, the president could use the army to round up Klansmen and present them for trial in federal court.
In October 1871, Grant had declared a “state of lawlessness” in nine Klan-dominated counties of South Carolina, dispatching troops who helped arrest hundreds of Klansmen and drive another two thousand out of state. Rank-and-file Klansmen who confessed and quit the organization were let go, but 220 leaders were indicted, of whom 53 pled guilty and 5 were convicted at trial—before juries which included colored men. By July 1872, there were some 65 Klan leaders from across the South incarcerated in the federal prison at Albany, New York, serving sentences of up to five years. “Peace has come to many places as never before,” the black abolitionist Frederick Douglass wrote. “The scourging and slaughter of our people have so far ceased.”
Yet Grant’s attack on the klan triggered a political backlash which ultimately spread to the Republicans’ own ranks. The reaction was strongest in the South, of course, but for many Northern whites, the struggle with the Klan simply underscored the fact that Reconstruction, for all its initial promise, had turned into a long, violent slog. As a postwar economic boom accelerated in the North and West, the press in those regions covered the South as if it were some troubled foreign land. Papers vividly described alleged corruption in Republican Southern state governments, which were reportedly controlled by Northern adventurers who owed their offices to the manipulated votes of illiterate Negroes. More and more white Northerners agreed with their Southern brethren that colored men were unfit for citizenship—and that, in some sense, they and not the Klan were to blame for the mess the South had become.
In the 1872 election, Grant’s main opponent had been an apostate Republican: Horace Greeley, the publisher of the New York Tribune. Greeley’s so-called Liberal Republicans, who included such prominent senators as Carl Schurz of Missouri and Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, walked out of their old party under the banner of “reform.” Their main issue was corruption: namely, the shameless activities of railroad lobbyists and Grant’s distribution of government favors to cronies and party hacks. Greeley’s other campaign theme was the injustice of Grant’s policy in the South. Once an ardent abolitionist, Greeley had soured on the freedmen. Their failure to prosper disappointed him. “They are an easy, worthless race, taking no thought for the morrow,” he said. Backed by the Democrats, the party of the white South, Greeley ran on a platform that denounced Grant’s Klan policy as “arbitrary measures” and called for “local self-government” in the ex-Confederacy.
Grant ultimately defeated Greeley easily. Thanks in part to the president’s timely crackdown on the Klan, the November 1872 election was the most peaceful of Reconstruction, and a half-million Southern Negroes cast ballots printed with Grant’s name. In Alabama, Republicans even took back the governorship and legislature. But the Liberal Republican challenge had heightened the contradictions within the Republican Party. It had forced Grant and his party to leaven their tough approach to the Klan with concessions. The Republican Congress shelved a civil rights bill, and, in May 1872, it enacted an amnesty law that restored full political rights to the vast majority of ex-Confederates who had been barred from office under a special provision of the Fourteenth Amendment. Only a few hundred top Confederate officials remained unpardoned. This act energized Southern white politics with a fresh injection of leadership. Perhaps more important, it betrayed a hint of irresolution in Washington.
Grant finished the trip down Pennsylvania Avenue, and, at three minutes before noon, entered the Senate chamber. Awaiting him were the senators, fifty foreign diplomats in colorful dress uniforms, the Supreme Court justices in their black robes—and two thousand men and women prominent and lucky enough to have tickets. Impassive in his black suit, Grant sat through some speeches before following the Supreme Court out to the East Portico of the Capitol, where an inauguration platform had been erected and decorated with flags and evergreens. Julia Dent Grant emerged first, escorted by her brother, General Frederick Dent. On the president’s arm was his daughter Nellie, seventeen years old. Grant sat briefly in the same mahogany chair George Washington had used at his first inaugural. Little puffs of condensed breath, swirling in the wind, floated among the assembled dignitaries.
Slowly, the chief justice of the United States, Salmon P. Chase, made his way toward the president. Pale and feeble, Chase, sixty-five years old, had coveted the presidency himself for many years, but now he was a dying man, clutching an open Bible supplied by the clerk of the Supreme Court. Grant rose, removed his hat, and placed his left hand on the pages. He raised his right hand and repeated the oath of office after Chase: “I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States—so help me God.”
Then, following a tradition that Washington had started, Grant leaned forward to kiss the words upon which his hand had lain. As Grant had requested, the Bible was open to Isaiah, chapter 11, “Christ’s Peaceable Kingdom.” The passage was a prophecy of wise government and a tribute to his father, Jesse Grant.
And there shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse
And a branch shall grow out of his roots
And the spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him
The spirit of wisdom and understanding
The spirit of counsel and might
The spirit of knowledge and of fear of the Lord
And shall make him of quick understanding in the fear of the Lord
And he shall not judge after the sight of his eyes
Neither reprove after the hearing of his ears
But with righteousness shall he judge the poor
And reprove with equity for the meek of the earth.
A roar went up from the crowd. The howitzer battery of the Naval School and the Army Light Artillery joined in a twenty-one-gun salute. Grant rose from Washington’s chair and stood before the shivering multitude. He hated public speaking and dreaded it. Yet by his usual standard, Grant’s second inaugural address was positively expansive. He began with a firm defense of his policy in the South: “The effects of the late civil strife have been to free the slave and make him a citizen. Yet he is not possessed of the civil rights which citizenship should carry with it. This is wrong, and should be corrected. To this correction I stand committed, so far as Executive influence can avail.” Grant assured whites that “social equality is not a subject to be legislated upon.” Yet, in issuing that disclaimer, he supported the freedmen. He would do nothing, he said, to “advance the social status of the colored man except to give him a fair chance to develop what there is good in him, give him access to the schools, and when he travels let him feel assured that his conduct will regulate the treatment and the fare he will receive.”
As Grant knew, even this moderate agenda—an allusion to provisions of the civil rights bill which the Republicans had downplayed during the campaign—was anathema to Southern whites, and many Northern ones, too. Still, Grant claimed that the old Confederacy was coming around. Answering those who charged him with despotism for using the military against the Klan, he noted that “the States lately at war with the General Government are now happily rehabilitated, and no Executive control is exercised in any one of them that would not be exercised in any other state in like circumstances.” In any case, Grant continued, the telegraph and steamboat were breaking down barriers to mutual understanding: “Our Great Maker is preparing the world, in His own good time, to become one nation, speaking one language, and when armies and navies will be no longer required,” he declared.
Finally, he took a parting shot at his political enemies. “I did not ask for place or position” before the war “and was entirely without influence or the acquaintance of persons of influence,” Grant said. All he had done since the firing on Fort Sumter was his duty. Yet, “throughout the war, and from my candidacy for the present office in 1868 to the close of the last campaign, I have been the subject of abuse and slander scarcely equaled in political history, which today I feel that I can afford to disregard in view of your verdict, which I gratefully accept as my vindication.” Fortunately for Grant, given the rancor of this peroration, the wind shrieked so loudly that only people next to him could hear what he said.
As the president left the podium, he might have noticed the bright fezzes of the Lincoln Zouaves bobbing among the crowd. He surely spotted a group of Union veterans, standing beneath frayed flags emblazoned with the names of historic battles: Fredericksburg, Roanoke, Atlanta. The tattered banners flapped in the wind, emblems of Grant’s glory days. That night, technicians illuminated the Capitol dome with the new technology known as electric light. Fireworks boomed and sparkled. The president and the first lady went off to the Inaugural Ball, which was being held near the Capitol in a hangarlike temporary pavilion made out of pine boards draped with muslin. Dignitaries gamely shuffled across the dance floor in their overcoats, as horn and tuba players squeaked out music through the frozen valves of their instruments. Dozens of birdcages dangled from the ceiling; the canaries inside were supposed to accompany the orchestra. But the cold was so intense that the birds shivered, tucked their beaks under their wings, and then began to drop dead.
The truth was that Grant had won a battle in November 1872—not a war. The victory he interpreted as personal vindication, and which gave his black supporters hope, kept Reconstruction alive. But it hardly extinguished all threats to the political rights of freedmen in the South or to the Republican-led national government that protected—and depended upon—the exercise of those rights. Rather, the conflicts with the Klan and the Liberal Republicans, though won by Grant, had exposed, and widened, the political and racial fissures menacing Reconstruction.
As of Inauguration Day 1873, only two of the eleven states that had once made up the Confederacy—black-majority South Carolina and Mississippi—remained under firm Republican control. Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia had long since been “redeemed,” thanks in part to Klan violence. Republicans governed Alabama, but Democrats had conceded the statehouse only under pressure from U.S. troops sent by Grant. In Texas and Florida, Democrats controlled all or part of the state legislatures and were harassing Republican governors. Arkansas’s Republican Party had split in two.
And Louisiana was in chaos.
Copyright © 2008 by Charles Lane. All rights reserved.