A turning point in Reconstruction

The Supreme Court’s 1876 ruling in U.S. v. Cruikshank has not had the same high profile as Dred Scott, Plessy and other cases pitting civil rights against states’ rights. Yet the Cruikshank decision, which threw out federal prosecutions of the deaths of more than 60 black men in Colfax, La., is still being felt today.

Charles Lane, in his well-researched, highly readable new book, The Day Freedom Died, illustrates the intense legal fight over Cruikshank and the heinous massacre of more than 60 Louisiana blacks that led up to it. In telling the story of dogged U.S. Attorney J. R. Beckwith and the obstacles he faced on the bench, in Louisiana politics and at his own Justice Department, Lane persuasively argues that Cruikshank was a tragic turning point in Reconstruction efforts and civil rights.

Lane, a former Supreme Court reporter for The Washington Post, also shows how the ruling weakened the 14th Amendment, stripping federal government’s power in civil rights cases and helping solidify the power of states’-rights arguments.

Lane starts his book by explaining the politics of post-war Louisiana, where the Republican Party had won the offices at both the state and local level.

White supremacists organized against Republicans. As Lane recounts, they tried to retake Grant Parish by ballot, under the Fusionist ticket, and by force, killing one of the parish’s first sheriffs.

Tensions erupted after Fusionists disputed the Republican victory in the 1872 parish elections. On Easter Sunday 1873, a white militia surrounded a mostly black force at the courthouse in Colfax, the parish’s political center. The militia flushed the Republican force out of building, took prisoners, and executed most of their captives.

Lane writes that at least 62 died that day, but other estimates go higher.

Lane could have done better by writing less on minor characters. But he excels in his portraits of those who prosecuted, defended and judged the Colfax killers. He writes of Beckwith’s repeated pleas with Attorney General George Williams for more help in rounding up suspects — which Williams denied because he believed the federal government was already under pressure to undo the tenets of Reconstruction.

Lane’s legal expertise shows in his explanation of Beckwith’s case. In 1873, few cases involving individuals had tested the 14th Amendment, which required states to provide all persons equal protection under the law. Hoping to prosecute the Colfax killers in federal court and not in a state court that would be more friendly to them, Beckwith argued that the amendment applied to cases in which individuals, not just states, had violated civil rights. In the end, Lane writes, it was Supreme Court Justice Joseph Bradley who rejected Beckwith’s reasoning that individual acts that violated civil rights fell under federal court jurisdiction. Bradley ruled that it was up to states to rule on such cases.

As Lane writes in his epilogue, the high court in 2000 struck down parts of the Violence Against Women Act, passed in 1994 to allow civil lawsuits by a sexual violence victim even in the absence of a criminal case. The 2000 ruling cited portions of Bradley’s argument when it took up a suit filed by a college student under the act. In the 5-4 majority opinion, authored by then-Chief Justice William Rehnquist, the court struck down parts of the act due to limitations on federal power enumerated in Cruikshank — the name of one of the Colfax residents Beckwith had prosecuted.