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The Day Freedom Died.

The Day Freedom Died

Charles Lane

Henry Holt & Co.

352 pp., $27


Walking in Berlin recently, I was struck by the immediacy of history. The pedestal on the Victory Column in the Tiergarten is pocked with bullet holes, a reminder of how Soviet soldiers took the city. An illuminated gap in the cobblestones in Bebelplatz reveals row upon row of empty white bookshelves, which could hold 30,000 volumes--an unmarked memorial to the Kristallnacht pogrom.

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, an editorial writer and former Supreme Court reporter for the Washington Post, so vividly evokes in The Day Freedom Died: The Colfax Massacre, the Supreme Court, and the Betrayal of Reconstruction.

On Easter Sunday, April 13, 1873, under the direction of former Confederate soldier Christopher Columbus Nash, about 140 white men attacked the black Republicans who were occupying the Colfax courthouse. The Republican governor of Louisiana, William Pitt Kellogg, had named several of the Republican candidates in the election of 1872 to the Grant Parish government after massive voter intimidation and fraud discredited the returns. That Kellogg appointed the Republicans instead of the Fusionists, for whom Nash had been the candidate for sheriff, inflamed Nash and his fellow white supremacists.

A year and a half earlier, as members of a sheriff's posse, Nash and several others had brutally murdered Delos White, the former sheriff, and driven from the parish the judge, William Phillips, whom they had presumed dead after torching the house in which both men lived. White and Phillips were sympathetic to blacks, and the racial violence and antagonism only increased after White was murdered.

Black residents' fears of the mounting chaos were exacerbated by the cold-blooded murder of a former slave by a dozen white men on April 5, 1873. By that evening, about 400 black residents of Grant Parish had retreated to the area surrounding the Colfax courthouse, of which they'd assumed control in late March.

They sought assistance from Kellogg and requested that U.S. troops be sent to se cure the parish. William Ward, a Republican leader and black candidate for state representative in 1872, traveled to New Orleans to alert the federal authorities and swear a complaint against the Fusionists, who increasingly threatened Republican control of the parish. These attempts were unavailing.

Before Ward returned to Colfax, and before the two deputy U.S. marshals who carried arrest warrants for Nash and his forces arrived, Nash and his men attacked the courthouse. The black men sought to surrender, but without assurance that Nash would not attack unarmed men, they sent away their wives and children and resigned themselves to fight.

After a brutal battle that Lane makes vivid, in which Nash's men torched the courthouse and then blocked the door, the Colfax courthouse was in flames and dead men littered the ground throughout the town. The white forces shot the black prisoners they'd captured and left them for dead.

The number of black men killed that day is uncertain: Estimates range from 62, counted by the deputy marshals who visited the scene on April 15, to 150, noted on the state historical marker. It is undisputed that only three white men died in the attack.

U.S. Attorney James Beckwith initiated an investigation and convened a grand jury to indict the men involved. Because murder was a crime ordinarily punished by the state, Beckwith sought a federal offense with which to charge Nash and his followers. The Constitution's Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments (which, respectively, ended slavery, conferred citizenship on people of color born or naturalized in the United States, and guaranteed former slaves the right to vote) and the Enforcement Acts (which criminalized conduct that jeopardized those rights) gave Beckwith the tools he needed.

The grand jury approved Beckwith's 32-count indictment and named 98 defendants, including Nash. Nonetheless, Beckwith was left with significant obstacles to bringing the perpetrators to justice, including locating and arresting them and finding a jury to judge them impartially for their crimes. With little support from the attorney general or the president, neither was easily accomplished, as Lane shows.

Only seven men were arrested, and Nash was not among them. 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. The Court's decision was as tragic and ignominious as the decision to which Judge Hugh Lennox Bond, of the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, compared it. He wrote to Chief Justice Morrison Waite, who wrote the Court's opinion: "I have been afraid to come and see you since that 'Dred' decision...."

Even as the Court threw out the convictions, the opinion is silent on the crimes committed. Lane writes that not once in 5,000 words does Waite mention that freedmen were killed at Colfax: "There was nothing about the way the white men marched their colored prisoners to their deaths, two by two, after dark."

With this decision came the effective end of Reconstruction. Its official end was the following year, when a compromise ensured that Rutherford B. Hayes would be president and installed Democrats as governors of Louisiana and South Carolina, with the remaining black-majority Southern states under Republican control.

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 is associate litigation counsel at the Center for Constitutional Litigation in Washington, D. C.
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Author:Hochberg, Francine A.
Article Type:Book review
Date:Aug 1, 2008
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