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People & Events: The Colfax Massacre

On April 13, 1873, violence erupted in Colfax, Louisiana. The White League, a paramilitary group intent on securing white rule in Louisiana, clashed with Louisiana's almost all-black state militia. The resulting death toll was staggering. Only three members of the White League died. But some one hundred black men were killed in the encounter. Of those, nearly half were murdered in cold blood after they had already surrendered. The incident once again showed President Ulysses S. Grant how hard it would be to guarantee the rights and the safety of blacks in the South.

Since the end of the Civil War, the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist organizations had been growing in strength in the South. Prior to the war, white Southern Democrats had enjoyed a great deal of governmental power. But when the war ended, Democrats were no longer powerful. Northern Republicans controlled the nation's government. They placed federal troops in Southern cities to keep that control. Southerners deeply resented this imposition.

Two laws that Southern Democrats hated were the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. The Fourteenth Amendment granted citizenship to blacks and declared that no state was to deprive them of "life, liberty, or property." The Fifteenth Amendment prevented a state from denying the vote to any person because of their race. Together, these laws guaranteed blacks equal citizenship. Southern Democrats, however, feared that blacks would not only vote Republican, but would be considered equal to their white former masters.

Conflicts between Republicans and Democrats in Louisiana were particularly frequent in 1872. That year, the state election produced two governors, both claiming to be the legitimate one. When the federal government supported the Republican governor by sending federal troops to Louisiana, the white residents of the state refused to cooperate.

Louisiana whites formed their own "shadow" government and their own army, the White League. The White League, similar to the Ku Klux Klan, intimidated and attacked Republicans and blacks all over the state. While the worst violence occurred in Colfax, other incidents were sparked in Coushatta, when the White League murdered six Republicans, and in New Orleans, when thirty were killed and one hundred more wounded.

In response to these incidents and others throughout the South, President Grant ordered federal troops to restore order. But most of the relief was temporary. After Colfax, the federal government convicted only three whites for the murders. In the end, they were freed when the U.S. Supreme Court declared that they had been convicted unconstitutionally. The battle over Reconstruction and the rights of blacks would continue.





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