The Colfax Massacre: The Untold Story of Black Power, White Terror, and the Death of Reconstruction

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9780195310269: The Colfax Massacre: The Untold Story of Black Power, White Terror, and the Death of Reconstruction
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On Easter Sunday, 1873, in the tiny hamlet of Colfax, Louisiana, more than 150 members of an all-black Republican militia, defending the town's courthouse, were slain by an armed force of rampaging white supremacists. The most deadly incident of racial violence of the Reconstruction era, the Colfax Massacre unleashed a reign of terror that all but extinguished the campaign for racial equality.
LeeAnna Keith's The Colfax Massacre is the first full-length book to tell the history of this decisive event. Drawing on a huge body of documents, including eyewitness accounts of the massacre, as well as newly discovered evidence from the site itself, Keith explores the racial tensions that led to the fateful encounter, during which surrendering blacks were mercilessly slaughtered, and the reverberations this message of terror sent throughout the South. Keith also recounts the heroic attempts by U.S. Attorney J.R. Beckwith to bring the killers to justice and the many legal issues raised by the massacre. In 1875, disregarding the poignant testimony of 300 witnesses, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in U.S. v. Cruikshank to overturn a lower court conviction of eight conspirators. This decision virtually nullified the Ku Klux Klan Enforcement Acts of 1870 and 1871--which had made federal offenses of a variety of acts to intimidate voters and officeholders--and cleared the way for the Jim Crow era.
If there was a single historical moment that effectively killed Reconstruction and erased the gains blacks had made since the civil war, it was the day of the Colfax Massacre. LeeAnna Keith gives readers both a gripping narrative account of that portentous day and a nuanced historical analysis of its far-reaching repercussions.

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LeeAnna Keith teaches history at Collegiate School in New York City. Her historical articles have appeared in The Dictionary of American History and The Encyclopedia of American Foreign Relations. She is co-author, with Sandra Fekete, of Companies Are People, Too.

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It happened in Colfax, La., on Easter Sunday, 1873; when it ended, the the largest number of victims in the history of racial violence in the United States, more than one hundred and fifty African-Americans, were dead. Keith places the massacre at the center of her book, but her sharpest focus is upon white political figures and the slave-holding Calhoun family (the character Simon Legree in Uncle Tom's Cabin was based upon a Calhoun forebear), most notably William, who witnessed the violence. Keith traces the fortunes of the Calhoun family to the events leading to the massacre, then turns to the Colfax Courthouse assault and judicial aftermath that deepened the complexity of this tragic event. Three white men were convicted, not for murders but for conspiracy in one murder. These convictions were then overturned, and Reconstruction effectively ended according to Keith. Louisiana's Governor Kellogg declared no white man could be punished for killing a negro. Later memorialized by the state with a plaque celebrating the demise of 'carpetbag misrule in the South,'  the horrific massacre has received scant attention from American historians. Keith's aim is admirable, but the execution could be bolstered with more substantive research. (Feb.)
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