Washington Post writer Lane tackles the horrific Reconstruction era in this well-considered study of a Louisiana massacre and its grim ramifications for civil rights.
By 1873, the Southern states were bitterly divided along racial lines. The Ku Klux Klan ran largely unchecked, despite the newly passed Enforcement Act, which made racist terrorism a federal offense, and the Ku Klux Klan Act, which branded the Klan an “insurrection” against the United States and imposed heavy new penalties. The backlash against Radical Republicanism flared especially in Louisiana, where the Republicans and the Fusionists (Republican defectors who joined the white Democrats) were coming to blows over a legitimate government. Colfax was the capital of a newly carved county called Grant Parish, populated largely by freedmen who had grown vehemently Republican and determined to push for Negro suffrage. Events came to a head in March, when the Republican faction sacked the Fusionist-dominated Grant Parish Courthouse. The Fusionists vowed to retake the courthouse, now guarded by a posse of mostly black guards; after an uneasy standoff, it was besieged and set ablaze on Easter Sunday. Sixty-five white-flag-waving blacks were slaughtered as they ran from the burning building, along with 30 prisoners. James Beckwith, U.S. attorney for Louisiana, moved swiftly to dragnet the whites responsible, basing his case on Klan prosecutions and relying on the unprecedented testimony of black witnesses. After a mistrial followed by the acquittal of the defendants in a second trial, the case reached the Supreme Court, which declared in U.S. v. Cruikshank, et al. that Beckwith’s indictments were constitutionally flawed—thus effectively throwing the enforcement of civil rights back to the white-controlled Southern states for another generation. Lane argues eloquently that the Colfax Massacre proved the turning point in America’s racial politics.
An exciting, swift-moving narrative, replete with characters both dastardly and noble.