The Day Freedom Died

The Colfax Massacre, the Supreme Court, and the Betrayal of Reconstruction

Charles Lane

Henry Holt and Co.

The untold story of the slaying of a Southern town’s ex-slaves and a white lawyer’s historic battle to bring the perpretators to justice
Following the Civil War, Colfax, Louisiana, was a town, like many, where African Americans and whites mingled uneasily. But on April 13, 1873, a small army of white ex–Confederate soldiers, enraged after attempts by freedmen to assert their new rights, killed more than sixty African Americans who had occupied a courthouse. With skill and tenacity, The Washington Post’s Charles Lane transforms this nearly forgotten incident into a riveting historical saga.
Seeking justice for the slain, one brave U.S. attorney, James Beckwith, risked his life and career to investigate and punish the perpetrators—but they all went free. What followed was a series of courtroom dramas that culminated at the Supreme Court, where the justices’ verdict compromised the victories of the Civil War and left Southern blacks at the mercy of violent whites for generations. The Day Freedom Died is an electrifying piece of historical detective work that captures a gallery of characters from presidents to townspeople, and re-creates the bloody days of Reconstruction, when the often brutal struggle for equality moved from the battlefield into communities across the nation.


Read an Excerpt

The Day Freedom Died
CHAPTER ONE"WHOLESALE MURDER"A cloudy evening was fading into darkness as the steamboat Southwestern approached the eastern bank of the Red River on April 13, 1873--Easter Sunday. The boat had reached a bend in the river where Captain Thornton Jacobs was certain he would find pine logs for his vessel's four hungry engines. The woodpile was about a mile north of Colfax, Louisiana.The Southwestern carried its own gangplanks: a pair of long wooden walkways which jutted like alligator teeth from the vessel's bow. Jacobs's crew had just lowered them when a young man charged out


Praise for The Day Freedom Died

"One of the most memorable opening lines in English literature, from Ford Maddox Ford's novel The Good Soldier, is: ‘This is the saddest story I have ever heard.’ That could be the epigraph for Charles Lane's shattering account of the post-Civil War betrayal of African Americans and the bloody collapse of Reconstruction."—George F. Will

"A highly impressive, deeply researched, engagingly written account of one of the lowest chapters in U.S. Supreme Court history."—David J. Garrow, author of Bearing the Cross

"If you want to understand twentieth century politics, you have to begin at the end of the nineteenth, when the battle lines were drawn not just over civil rights for African Americans, but over what kind of nation this country would become. It all starts here, with the unkept promise of Reconstruction, and Charles Lane has found the perfect narrative—meticulously researched and wonderfully told—to bring the story to life."—Nate Blakeslee, author of Tulia

"Lane has unearthed a tragic story that shows the real strength of human character and courage, and delivers a riveting account of the bloody struggle for racial equality after the smoke cleared the battlefields in the post-Civil War South."—Jan Crawford Greenburg, author of Supreme Conflict

"Charles Lane is one of the most astute observers of the Supreme Court. In this gripping narrative, he proves to be a first rate historical sleuth as well. With psychological and political insight, Lane unforgettably brings to life one of the most shameful episodes in American constitutional history."—Jeffrey Rosen, author of The Supreme Court

"In page after riveting page Charles Lane brings to life a massacre and its legal consequences that have been forgotten, ignored, or papered over by history. You'll put this book down amazed at how much you didn't know about race, Reconstruction, and the courts, and profoundly grateful that Lane had both the curiosity and skill to so powerfully fill in the blanks."—Dahlia Lithwick, Slate legal correspondent

"Brilliantly lays bare one of the most unknown but significant contributing events in the fatal collapse of Reconstruction. By transforming exhaustive historical research and detail into a dramatic portrayal of the high-stakes tug of war between racial, political, cultural, and sociological forces of the time, Charles Lane brings insight, urgency, and clarity to the Colfax Massacre. A vital and important contribution to our understanding of our country’s history."—Lalita Tademy, author of Red River and Cane River

Lane…is skillful at interpreting legal events within the broad sweep of history, bringing a flair for courtroom drama to these long-ago proceedings, showing the long shadow they cast toward the future.…Fascinating.—The Times-Picayune

Lane grippingly recalls…a decision with ramifications today…Through his deft legal, political, and social analysis, Lane shines an illuminating light on one of America’s more sordid events. A- —Entertainment Weekly

"Tell[s] the story of the single most egregious act of terrorism during Reconstruction . . . in vivid, compelling prose. . . . A gripping account." —Eric Foner, The Washington Post Book World

"Well-researched, highly readable."—The Hill

"Absorbing... riveting... a legal thriller. Colfax will probably never build an obelisk to honor the massacre’s victims. But with his gripping book, Charles Lane has given them a memorial every bit as imposing."—Kevin Boyle, New York Times Book Review

"A work of history that reads like a legal thriller."—Josh Patashnik, TNR online

"Lane, a Washington Post reporter who has covered the Supreme Court, has written a truly horrifying (and gripping) account of the collapse of Reconstruction in the South after the Civil War."—Evan Thomas, Newsweek.com

Lane provides a remarkably vivid and thorough account of a horrific episode of white-supremacist terrorism in Reconstruction-era Louisiana—the massacre of more than 60 black men in the town of Colfax on Easter Sunday (April 13) 1873—and of U.S. Attorney James Beckwith’s effort to use post-Civil War federal statutes to bring the perpetrators to justice. . . . Lane’s account provides a concrete picture of the epic challenges and failures of the Reconstruction era.—Ed Whelan, National Review on-line

"If you are a history buff, a resident of Louisiana (especially of Grant Parish), curious about the roots of race relations today, just like a compelling read or any of the above, get the book, read it, teach it. This is history that echoes on the national scene even today."—The Town Talk, Alexandria, La.

"Lane’s book is an exhaustively researched recounting of the character of the times (focused mainly in Louisiana), of the atrocity itself, and of the criminal trials and appeals. His penetrating portraits of the main actors (though sometimes interrupting the flow of the narrative) give the reader a sense of actually knowing them, and his scene-setting prose makes the reader nearly an actual spectator. And the book is engagingly, and often imaginatively, written."—Lyle Denniston, Legal Times

". . . an electrifying piece of historical reporting. . .This is a groundbreaking work meticulously researched and crisply written, an account that clarifies and documents one of the most troubling incidents of our nation’s past."—Tucson Citizen

"Lane has given this miscarriage of justice new immediacy and shown the tragedy of our nation’s inability to capitalize on the promise of Reconstruction. This story should be better known, and Lane has done much to insure that it will be." –Trial: Journal for the American Association of Justice

Reviews from Goodreads



  • Charles Lane

  • Charles Lane discovered the Colfax Massacre case while covering the Supreme Court for The Washington Post. His journalism career has taken him from Washington to Tokyo, Berlin to Bosnia, Havana to Johannesburg. A former editor of The New Republic, Lane has written for Foreign Affairs, The New York Review of Books, and The Atlantic. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard and studied law at Yale. He lives in the Washington, D.C., area.





    Available Formats and Book Details

    The Day Freedom Died

    The Colfax Massacre, the Supreme Court, and the Betrayal of Reconstruction

    Charles Lane



    Henry Holt and Co.