The Day Freedom Died The Colfax Massacre, the Supreme Court, and the Betrayal of Reconstruction

Charles Lane

Holt Paperbacks



Trade Paperback

352 Pages



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Following the Civil War, Colfax, Louisiana, was a town, like many others, 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. The Washington Post's Charles Lane tells the story of this nearly forgotten incident and brings to light the significant implications and ramifications of that one night on the town of Colfax and civil rights in America.

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 captures a gallery of characters from presidents to townspeople, and re-creates the days of Reconstruction, when the often brutal struggle for equality moved from the battlefield into communities across the nation.


Praise for The Day Freedom Died

"A former Supreme Court reporter for The Washington Post, [Lane] is perfectly comfortable with the play of politics and the intricacies of the law. So while he builds an absorbing narrative of events in Colfax—his chapter on the massacre itself is riveting—he's careful to frame them within the political wars then raging in New Orleans and Washington . . . Lane devotes the second part of The Day Freedom Died to the legal maneuvering that followed the massacre. That's a risky decision, since complex constitutional questions don't lend themselves to sprightly storytelling. But he manages to turn the case, United States v. Cruikshank, into a legal thriller, complete with crusading lawyers, courtroom confrontations and soaring declarations of principle . . . Colfax's whites dedicated the monument to their dead on a drab day in the spring of 1921. By then white supremacy was so firmly entrenched it had become a point of pride, something to celebrate in stone. And the town's whites undoubtedly thought it just as well not to mention the bones buried in unmarked graves around the Colfax courthouse. The time for silence has long since passed. 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, The New York Times Book Review

"Tell[s] the story of the single most egregious act of terrorism during Reconstruction . . . in vivid, compelling prose. Lane offers a . . . detailed account of the ensuing court cases. If his story has a hero, it is J. R. Beckwith, the U.S. attorney in New Orleans, who became obsessed with bringing the perpetrators to justice."—Eric Foner, The Washington Post Book World

"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. His book is built around the massacre of 60 black men in Colfax, La., by a white mob on Easter Sunday 1873. The rule of law failed that day; the federal government was unable to bring the killers to justice, and the message went out to the Ku Klux Klan and more civilized folk that blacks could be bullied and murdered and denied their equal rights."—Evan Thomas, Newsweek

"Looking for genuine heroes in what was once called 'the Tragic Era'—America's post-Civil War Reconstruction period—is not the most rewarding pursuit. Perhaps one candidate would be Ohio Congressman John A. Bingham, referred to as the 'James Madison of the Fourteenth Amendment,' that ambitious effort to ensure that freed slaves would have equal rights (and, in today's understanding of the amendment, a cornerstone of a variety of civil rights). But even Bingham's work has some stain from the blatant coercion of Southern states to ratify that amendment as a price of being allowed back into the Union . . . 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 . . . 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

"Lane, a staff writer for The Washington Post, takes as his central focus U.S. Attorney J. R. Beckwith. He begins The Day Freedom Died with the 1873 inauguration of President Ulysses S. Grant and ends with Beckwith's death in 1912 . . . Lane, who covered the Supreme Court for The Washington Post, 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."—Susan Larson, The Times Picayune (New Orleans)

"Charles Lane, a former reporter who covered the Supreme Court for The Washington Post, provides a riveting account of the Colfax massacre and its aftermath in his new book, The Day Freedom Died."—The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education

"History is necessarily inescapable, but in the United States, our history is less visible, less present. We have our share of historical markers, but they rarely capture the events memorialized—or betray their violence. For example, if you visit Colfax, Louisiana, you would find a simple gray sign outside the present-day courthouse commemorating the 'Colfax Riot,' an event, it reads, 'which marked the end of carpet bag misrule in the South.' Aside from counting the dead, this monument suggests little of the massacre—its causes and its tragic personal, legal, and societal aftermath—that Charles Lane, and editorial writer and former Supreme Court reporter for the Washington Post, so vividly evokes in The Day Freedom Died . . . After one mistrial and a second trial—in which Supreme Court Justice Joseph Bradley, serving as a circuit judge, rendered an opinion at the last minute, conflicting with that of the presiding judge, William Woods—the case headed to the Supreme Court. In the end, well-deserved convictions were rendered invalid. Lane notes that Bradley's opinion 'effectively suspended federal law enforcement in Louisiana and the rest of the Deep South.' The racial violence and anarchy in Louisiana worsened. Lane skillfully guides the reader through the case, from jury selection to Supreme Court opinion, making the legal intricacies readily accessible and leaving the reader nearly as frustrated as Beckwith must have been with the ultimate outcome . . . 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 ensure that it will be. But with this terrible history in plain sight, we must work even harder to overcome its legacy."—Francine A. Hochberg, Trial

"Lane, an extremely well-experienced political journalist with considerable knowledge of Supreme Court history, has constructed a deft and gripping narrative based on exhaustingly researched historical evidence and considerable insight. This is the best sort of 'popular' history."—Louisiana Genealogical Register

"Among the unhappiest stories of Reconstruction is the massacre of 60-plus African Americans in Colfax, La., on Easter Sunday, 1873. As Charles Lane grippingly recalls in The Day Freedom Died, barely armed former slaves were knifed, burned, smoked out of a courthouse, and gunned down by a white posse angry over an 1872 Republican election victory. Shockingly, the U.S. Supreme Court used the victims' case to effectively block all future federal protection of civil rights until the 1950s—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."—Michelle Kung, Entertainment Weekly

"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

"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

"Washington Post writer Lane tackles the horrific Reconstruction era in this well-considered study of a Louisiana massacre and its grim ramifications for civil rights. By 1873, the Southern states were bitterly divided along racial lines. The Ku Klux Klan ran largely unchecked, despite the newly passed Enforcement Act, which made racist terrorism a federal offense, and the Ku Klux Klan Act, which branded the Klan an 'insurrection' against the United States and imposed heavy new penalties. The backlash against Radical Republicanism flared especially in Louisiana, where the Republicans and the Fusionists (Republican defectors who joined the white Democrats) were coming to blows over a legitimate government. Colfax was the capital of a newly carved county called Grant Parish, populated largely by freedmen who had grown vehemently Republican and determined to push for Negro suffrage. Events came to a head in March, when the Republican faction sacked the Fusionist-dominated Grant Parish Courthouse. The Fusionists vowed to retake the courthouse, now guarded by a posse of mostly black guards; after an uneasy standoff, it was besieged and set ablaze on Easter Sunday. Sixty-five white-flag-waving blacks were slaughtered as they ran from the burning building, along with 30 prisoners. James Beckwith, U.S. attorney for Louisiana, moved swiftly to dragnet the whites responsible, basing his case on Klan prosecutions and relying on the unprecedented testimony of black witnesses. After a mistrial followed by the acquittal of the defendants in a second trial, the case reached the Supreme Court, which declared in U.S. v. Cruikshank, et al. that Beckwith's indictments were constitutionally flawed—thus effectively throwing the enforcement of civil rights back to the white-controlled Southern states for another generation. Lane argues eloquently that the Colfax Massacre proved the turning point in America's racial politics. An exciting, swift-moving narrative, replete with characters both dastardly and noble."—Kirkus Reviews

"The Colfax Massacre, a buried episode in American history, took place on an Easter Sunday afternoon in 1873. Within four hours, at least eighty black American men had been brutally murdered by white vigilantes in Colfax, Louisiana. Journalist Lane's groundbreaking and persuasive work illustrates this 'pivotal event in the political and constitutional history of post-Civil War America' and its social, political and judicial aftermath. Full of illuminating detail, this well-paced account clarifies the controversial events that surrounded the massacre—the development of a community of freed slaves, politicians' struggles and shenanigans, unchecked white vigilante intimidation and murder, the perpetrators' trials and the Supreme Court decision that, in effect, left it up to individual states to protect the rights of African-American citizens. Lane provides succinct background (biographical, historical and geographical) on persons, politics and places. Lucidly written, thoroughly readable, carefully documented, and impressively coherent, Lane's rendition of this 'turning point in the history of American race relations and racial politics' ends a long silence in American history books. Students of American and African-American history will find it particularly valuable; fans of American history will find it a moving and instructive drama."—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads



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The Day Freedom Died

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...

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  • 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.