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Looking for genuine heroes in what was once called “the Tragic Era” — America’s post-Civil War Reconstruction period — is not the most rewarding pursuit. Perhaps one candidate would be Ohio Congressman John A. Bingham, referred to as the “James Madison of the Fourteenth Amendment,” that ambitious effort to ensure that freed slaves would have equal rights (and, in today’s understanding of the amendment, a cornerstone of a variety of civil rights). But even Bingham’s work has some stains from the blatant coercion of Southern states to ratify that amendment as a price of being allowed back into the Union. The Washington Post‘s Charles Lane has now found another, perhaps more worthy, candidate for Reconstruction heroism: James Roswell Beckwith, an unsung federal prosecutor in 1870s New Orleans. Lane’s new book, The Day Freedom Died: The Colfax Massacre, the Supreme Court, and the Betrayal of Reconstruction, is, in many ways, Beckwith’s story, even more than it is a comprehensive study of Reconstruction, its “betrayal,” or the Supreme Court of that era. Virtually alone, and in the face of stubborn resistance from the U.S. attorney general and the hesitancy of President Ulysses S. Grant, Beckwith courageously prosecuted some of the ringleaders and their followers for “the Colfax massacre.” That was the slaughter of between 62 and 81 blacks (Lane notes the abiding debate over the number) in the small town of Colfax, La., “the bloodiest single act of carnage in all of Reconstruction” (in the words of the most noted historian of Reconstruction, Eric Foner). The episode, stirred mainly by racial hatred but also by white resentment over black Republican gains in the 1872 elections, involved a shootout over who had a right to occupy the Colfax courthouse. The massacre, including execution-style killings of some of the blacks, occurred on Easter Sunday, April 13, 1873. Prosecutor Beckwith, remarkably for that era, succeeded (after two trials and using, mostly, black witnesses) in getting guilty verdicts against three whites — ringleader William J. “Bill” Cruikshank and Johnnie Hadnot and Bill Irwin — for conspiracy to violate the blacks’ civil rights under federal law. But in the end, that hard-won victory came to nothing, as Supreme Court Justice Joseph P. Bradley — first as a co-presider at the trial, and then with his influence over his colleagues on the Supreme Court — found a way to nullify the indictments, overturn the verdicts, and order freedom for the convicted men, based on what lay people would consider a mere technicality and lawyers would consider a drafting error. Lane’s book is an exhaustively researched recounting of the character of the times (focused mainly in Louisiana), of the atrocity itself, and of the criminal trials and appeals. His penetrating portraits of the main actors (though sometimes interrupting the flow of the narrative) give the reader a sense of actually knowing them, and his scene-setting prose makes the reader nearly an actual spectator. And the book is engagingly, and often imaginatively, written. The story is largely over for Lane, however, after Justice Bradley has scuttled the indictment at the trial. The Supreme Court’s role in affirming dismissal of the entire case (in U.S. v. Cruikshank, et al., in 1876) is told perfunctorily, perhaps because it is seen as having been foreshadowed — if not entirely by Bradley’s post-trial maneuver, then by the Court’s rulings in Minor v. Happersett in 1875 and the Slaughter-House Cases in 1873. Lane concludes the brief chapter recounting the Court’s decision with, “Reconstruction was over.” But the reader is left wondering just what Lane — a perceptive legal observer — thinks the “Reconstruction Constitution” had become, and why and how in a larger sense the Court had contributed to or detracted from what some modern scholars see as one of the three defining “constitutional moments” in U.S. history (as Yale’s Bruce Ackerman has described the era, ranking it alongside the Founding and the New Deal) — in other words, whether Lane might have essayed a fuller portrayal of the much grander constitutional stage on which James Beckwith played a bit part. It would be a defense, of course, to suggest that this was more than Lane had intended, and that, indeed, others have fulfilled that task before him. Fair enough: The Beckwith story may well be good enough as it is.
Lyle Denniston began covering the Supreme Court in 1958, and now does so for scotusblog.com and Radio WBUR-Boston. For several recent years, he and Charles Lane worked nearly side by side in the chummy confines of the Supreme Court press room. Denniston, however, had no role in Lane’s work on this book.

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