Opinions and Legal Insights

N.Y. Times Op-Ed on U.S. v. Cruikshank

William Briggs and 

The Colfax massacre was ghastly, and so was its aftermath. A young, white New York lawyer named J.R. Beckwith had recently been appointed U.S. attorney for Louisiana; he got the job of prosecuting the Colfax murders. Beckwith’s 150 pages of indictments listed 32 counts and named 98 defendants. After six months, with no help from the federal government he represented, Beckwith had managed to arrest only seven of the defendants. The first trial, in March of 1874 in New Orleans, featured an eloquent and capable Beckwith doing battle against an all-star team of white-supremacist trial attorneys. It resulted in a hung jury.

In the retrial a few months later, a federal jury found just three defendants guilty of conspiring to violate the civil rights of the victims. A U.S. Supreme Court justice, Joseph P. Bradley, who opposed the abolition of slavery and despised Reconstruction, had participated in the first days of the retrial as a second judge while riding circuit, as justices did in those days, then departed. But three weeks after the trial was over, he came back to New Orleans and overturned even the minimal conspiracy verdicts. The split decision sent the case, U.S. v. Cruikshank, to the Supreme Court.

In March 1876, Bradley and his fellow Supreme Court justices decreed that he was correct in rescinding the convictions of William Cruikshank and the other white defendants, ruling that although the 14th Amendment gave the federal government authority to act against violations of civil rights by state governments, it did not apply to acts of racist violence by private citizens against other citizens. Furthermore, the court ludicrously declared, the prosecution failed to show that crimes against the murdered Black men were committed “on account of their race or color.” All 98 defendants escaped accountability, emboldening white supremacists across the land.

I didn’t realize that Colfax erected a monument in support of the lynchers:

As Americans debate the merit of tearing down monuments to founding fathers, a monument to the men who massacred Black Americans in Colfax 147 years ago stands unopposed and largely unnoticed. Two blocks off Main Street, a 12-foot marble obelisk is the focal point of the Colfax cemetery. An inscription carved into its base declares it was “erected to the memory of the heroes” who “fell in the Colfax Riot fighting for white supremacy.” On the north side of the present-day courthouse, a historical marker reads, “On this site occurred the Colfax Riot in which three white men and 150 negroes were slain” and added that the episode “marked the end of carpetbag misrule in the South.”

This monument should no longer stand.