I finished over the weekend former Washington Post Supreme Court reporter (and now Post editorial writer) Charles Lane’s new book The Day Freedom Died: The Colfax Massacre, the Supreme Court, and the Betrayal of Reconstruction. 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. The convictions that Beckwith obtained were nullified first by a ruling by Supreme Court justice Joseph P. Bradley, riding circuit as one of the two trial judges, and ultimately by the Supreme Court’s 1876 ruling in United States v. Cruikshank, a ruling that quickly led to the abandonment of Reconstruction and of the promise of federal protection for the elementary rights of blacks. Lane has been guest-blogging about his book on the Volokh Conspiracy, so I’ll refer readers to his posts setting forth his explanation of why the rulings were wrong (here and here) and honoring Beckwith’s heroic efforts.
Lane’s account provides a concrete picture of the epic challenges and failures of the Reconstruction era. Among the areas of particular interest to lawyers is his discussion (pp. 117-123) of the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Slaughterhouse Cases (rendered, coincidentally, one day after the Colfax Massacre occurred). Lane explains that the lawyer challenging the slaughterhouse law was trying to undermine the Reconstruction governments, but that he may have won more by losing, as the Court, in rejecting his arguments, adopted a definition of the 14th Amendment’s privileges and immunities that was so narrow that it ended up creating serious obstacles for Beckwith’s prosecution.