On April 13, 1873, in Colfax, Louisiana, hundreds of white men clashed with freedmen at the Grant Parish courthouse. Three white men and nearly 150 Black people were killed.
Black supporters of gubernatorial candidate William Kellogg, whom a federal judge had declared the winner of the 1872 election, surrounded the courthouse in Colfax to protect it from being overtaken by supporters of John McEnery, Kellogg’s white supremacist opponent who claimed victory.
More than 300 armed white men attacked the 60 Black Kellogg supporters. When a cannon was aimed at the courthouse, some of the defenders fled; others surrendered after the courthouse was set on fire, but the mob shot the unarmed men as they fled.
Federal prosecutors indicted a hundred members of the mob under the Enforcement Act of 1870, a Reconstruction-era law intended to protect newly freed Black voters from the Ku Klux Klan. Three defendants were convicted but they appealed and were freed when the United States Supreme Court dismissed the charges against them.
In United States v. Cruikshank, the Court ruled that the Fourteenth Amendment protects only against intentionally discriminatory acts by government officials, not the acts of individual citizens. This ruling severely limited the federal government’s role in protecting Black citizens from racially-motivated violence, especially at the hands of white terrorist groups intent on restoring whites’ racial dominance in the South.