In Colfax, Louisiana, is one of “those beautiful statues and monuments” President Trump tweeted about Thursday morning, a 12-foot obelisk in a graveyard that celebrates three white men who died while participating in the massacre by a white mob of up to 150 black men, women and children.
“Erected to the memory of the heroes, Stephen Decatur Parish, James West Hadnot, Sidney Harris, who fell in the Colfax riot fighting for white supremacy, April 13, 1873,” it reads. There is no mention of the 150 black victims.
The massacre—the worst mass killing of the period—and the monument are little known. But the racial slaughter marked the last gasp of Reconstruction, the short-lived federal attempt to give freedmen true equality after the Civil War, and led directly to the Jim Crow system that lasted for another 80 years.
In 1872, white supremacists were in midst of a violent and sustained campaign to recapture Louisiana’s state government when a huge dispute broke out about whether the Republican or Democratic candidate had won the gubernatorial election. Both claimed victory, although it was clear that the racist Democrats had engaged in major election fraud. Violence and tensions between white “redeemers” and their Republican opponents escalated as neither candidate would concede.
In Grant Parish, blacks slightly outnumbered whites and Colfax was seen as one of its strongholds of black power. Five months after the election, the fight came to a head when black Republicans assembled in the Colfax courthouse, many of them fleeing white attacks. Over the course of some three weeks, whites outside the courthouse, including Klan and other white supremacist groups, built up their numbers and their weapons.
On April 13, 1873—Easter Sunday—they attacked. A cannon was fired at the courthouse, and the whites eventually succeeded in setting it on fire.
The black defenders raised the white flag and poured out of the building, where large numbers were slaughtered in a hail of rifle fire. Historians say that at least 50 black defenders were captured by the whites and summarily executed.
The federal government initially indicted 97 whites for conspiring to deprive the black defenders of their civil rights, but in the end only nine stood trial. Three were found guilty, but the case made its way to the Supreme Court, which decided, in 1875, that the Enforcement Act of 1870 (commonly known as the Klan Act) only applied to actions taken by the state—not by individuals.
And that was that. No one ever went to prison. The federal government had no power to defend the victims of what historian Eric Foner has described as the “bloodiest single instance of racial carnage in the Reconstruction era.” The ruling marked the end of Reconstruction, and the beginning of Jim Crow.
In 1921, local whites in Colfax erected the obelisk honoring the three “heroes” who died “fighting for white supremacy.” Almost 30 years later, in 1950, the state of Louisiana, at the mayor’s request, erected a similar historical marker.
That marker does mention the 150 blacks who died. But, like the obelisk, it describes the massacre as a “riot,” and it shamelessly attributes the events of 1873 to “carpetbag misrule in the South.” The killers were held blameless.
Not all Confederate monuments today are so honest about what they really represent. But even then, the slightest bit of historical knowledge is illuminating.
Memphis, for instance, has been roiled in the last couple of years by a battle over removing an equestrian statue honoring Confederate cavalry general Nathan Bedford Forrest, complete with its own white supremacist rallies.
Forrest, as neo-Confederates today will tell you, is one of the greatest—and most brutal—cavalry officers in American history. But he was also a millionaire slave trader before the Civil War began; a war criminal who presided over a massacre of surrendering black Union troops in Fort Pillow, Tenn.; and—perhaps most remarkable of all—the first national leader of the Ku Klux Klan.
This is the “beautiful” history being defended by our president.
After the events of the last week—in which Trump asserted that there were some “very fine people” among the neo-Nazis and white supremacists who clashed with anti-racists in Charlottesville, Va., over a statue of Robert E. Lee—it’s less than shocking that the president bemoans the loss of Southern “history.”
But for the rest of us—the regular citizens who actually care about what our history really is—Donald Trump’s defense of white nationalists, of Confederate monuments, and his own terrible record on race is truly appalling.
The racist obelisk of Colfax, La., makes that point in stone.
Mark Potok is an expert on the radical right based in Montgomery, Ala. Now at work on a book, he was an official of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights organization known for monitoring the extreme right, for 20 years.