September 28, 2022


How White Supremacy Was Codified Into Law in America: Margaret A. Burnham on the Legal Legacy of Jim Crow (Margaret A. Burnham, September 28, 2022, LitHub)

A nineteenth-​century federal case, United States v. Cruikshank, foreshadowed what was at stake in the twentieth-​century struggle over federalism and citizenship. The case concerned a massacre that took place in Colfax, Louisiana, on Easter Sunday 1873. When the guns fell silent in a confrontation over the results of an election pitting Republicans, Black and white, against white Democrats, many of whom were former Confederate soldiers and members of groups like the Ku Klux Klan, 3 white men and somewhere between 60 to 150 Black men were left dead, and the parish courthouse, the site of the siege, was virtually in ashes.

Historian Eric Foner described this event in majority-​Black Grant Parish as the "bloodiest single instance of racial carnage in the Reconstruction era." It "taught many lessons," he wrote, "including the lengths to which some opponents of Reconstruction would go to retain their accustomed authority." Although 97 members of the white mob were indicted under federal law, only 9 were charged. Congress investigated the massacre and released a report describing it as a "deliberate, barbarous, cold-​blooded murder" that was a "foul blot on the page of history," but the appellate courts overturned all the ensuing convictions.

The most harmful opinion came not from the US Supreme Court, but from one of its justices, Joseph P. Bradley, who was sitting on the federal appeals court along with two other judges. Bradley construed the laws that the Reconstruction Congress adopted to curtail racist terror in a manner that made it clear the federal courts would view with hostility any congressional efforts to confer all the elements of citizenship on the formerly enslaved.

He read narrowly the constitutional grant of power to Congress to pass such laws. He reduced congressional power to hold individuals liable for civil rights violations. He heightened the prosecutor's burden in these cases by demanding proof of intentional discrimination. And, in effect, he reinforced the widely held belief that Black people should not be permitted to bear arms, notwithstanding the Second Amendment. The long shadow cast over federal civil rights enforcement by Bradley's opinion, which was endorsed by the Supreme Court, has crippled civil rights enforcement to this day.

Posted by at September 28, 2022 12:00 AM