Reconstruction, the 12-year period following the Civil War, failed to provide freedom and opportunity for formerly enslaved Black people. Instead, white resentment of social, political, and economic gains for Black people fueled racial terror violence and mass lynchings well into the 20th century. The white press often intentionally mislabeled lawless massacres as “riots” and the perpetrators acted with impunity. The prevalence of mass murders of Black people terrorized communities.
At least 34 mass lynchings occurred during Reconstruction, including 12 documented, large scale massacres in the South between 1872 and 1876, many of which targeted politically active African Americans.
On April 13, 1873, armed white men in Colfax, Louisiana, killed 150 Black people who were peacefully protesting a takeover of the courthouse by the white supremacist loser of the gubernatorial election. Three years later, the Supreme Court ruled in United States v. Cruikshank that the Fourteenth Amendment does not protect citizens from attacks by individuals, preventing federal prosecution of the perpetrators of the Colfax Massacre and most mass lynchings. On July 25, 1946, two Black couples—including a veteran and a pregnant woman—were shot to death in Walton County, Georgia, by a mob of unmasked white men who were not indicted.
Mass lynchings inflicted trauma, destroyed property, and instilled fear that impeded Black people from exercising their political rights and caused millions to flee. The aftermath of these massacres continues to shape community dynamics today, but most communities have not engaged in honest truth-telling about this history or made adequate reparations for the extreme harm and damages caused.