April 1st, 1875

United States Supreme Court Hears Argument in United States v. Cruikshank and Later Invalidates Convictions for Participating in Colfax, Louisiana Massacre

On April 13, 1873, in Colfax, Louisiana, hundreds of white men clashed with freedmen at the Grant Parish courthouse. While only three white men died, it is estimated that nearly 150 black people died in the ensuing struggle – many murdered in cold blood after surrendering.

The massacre was precipitated by the hotly contested 1872 Louisiana gubernatorial election. When a federal judge declared William Kellogg the winner, he began making appointments to fill local parish offices. Meanwhile, Kellogg’s white supremacist opponent John McEnery and his supporters declared McEnery the winner of the election. In the ensuing unrest, black supporters of Kellogg surrounded the Grant Parish courthouse and other municipal buildings in Colfax to protect them from being overtaken by McEnery supporters.

On Easter Sunday, more than 300 armed white men, including members of white supremacist groups, attacked the courthouse building to forcefully remove Kellogg's black supporters. When the white posse aimed a cannon to fire on the courthouse, some of the sixty black defenders fled; others surrendered then, and more surrendered after the courthouse was set on fire. Many of the men were nevertheless killed as the mob began shooting unarmed members of the militia as they fled.

After the massacre, the federal government indicted over 100 members of the white mob under the Enforcement Act of 1870, a law enacted during Reconstruction to protect newly freed black voters from the terrorist threats of the Ku Klux Klan and other disgruntled white southerners. Only three members of the mob were convicted, and they appealed. In one of the final blows to the Reconstruction era protections, those men were freed when the United States Supreme Court declared that they had been convicted unconstitutionally.

The Supreme Court heard arguments in United States v. Cruikshank on March 31 and April 1, 1875. In its ruling, the Supreme Court dismissed the charges against the three white men, ruling that the Fourteenth Amendment protects only against intentionally discriminatory state acts, not the acts of one citizen towards another not clearly motivated by racial animus. This ruling severely limited the federal government's role in protecting black citizens from racially-motivated violence, especially at the hands of white terrorist groups intent on restoring whites’ racial dominance in the post-civil war South.