James Beckwith And The Colfax Massacre

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THE PLANK MAY 18, 2008

James Beckwith And The Colfax Massacre

Kevin Boyle has high praise in this week's New York Times Book Review for former TNR editor Charles Lane's new book, The Day Freedom Died. I'm currently working my way through the book and can also attest to its merit--it's a gripping account of the Colfax massacre, a seminal event in American history with which most people (including myself, before reading the book) are unfamiliar. On Easter Sunday, 1873, more than 80 black Republicans in the small town of Colfax, Louisiana, were murdered by a mob of white Democrats, the culmination of a heated dispute over who would control the state and local governments in Louisiana. The Supreme Court would later rule that federal prosecution of the offenders was unconstitutional, clearing the path to nearly a century of brutal discrimination and racial violence in the South.

The hero of Lane's book is James Beckwith, the U.S. attorney in Louisiana who defied death threats in order to prosecute the perpetrators of the Colfax massacre. (Here's a brief sketch of Beckwith's career from Lane.) Beckwith amassed such a commendable record as U.S. attorney that white-supremecist Louisiana Democrats, in exchange for allowing Republican Rutherford B. Hayes to receive their state's electoral votes (and hence the presidency) in the disputed election of 1876, made the specific demand that Beckwith be fired, in addition to the more general demand of an end to Reconstruction. Republicans were in no mood to stand up for him, since Beckwith had angered corrupt and powerful friends of President Grant by prosecuting the "Whiskey Thieves," the perpetrators of a plot to steal federal liquor tax revenues. (Incidentally, what a great name for a band!) So Beckwith was unceremoniously dumped--an episode that, among other things, reminds us of the seriousness with which we should take any attempt to fire federal prosecutors for political reasons.

Anyway, check out Boyle's review and, if you're looking for a work of history that reads like a legal thriller, pick up Lane's book. And if you happen to be in New Orleans and (like me) you enjoy visiting fancy old urban cemeteries, stop by Metairie Cemetery and pay your respects to Beckwith.

--Josh Patashnik 

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