The Waite Court (1874–88)

Racial Discrimination/civil Rights

What case arose after a massacre of African Americans in Louisiana?

The Court’s decision in U.S. v. Cruikshank (1876) arose from an election dispute in Colfax, Louisiana, that erupted into violence when a group of angry white men stormed a local courthouse being protected by a local sheriff and many black Republicans. On Easter Sunday in 1873, the band of whites murdered at least fifty blacks, though some estimates rank the number of casualties as much higher.

Federal investigators charged more than ninety white men, including William Cruikshank, with violation of the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1870. That law made it illegal to “injure, oppress, threaten, or intimidate any citizen with intent to prevent or hinder his free exercise and enjoyment of any right or privilege granted or secured to him by the constitution or laws of the United States, or because of his having exercised the same.” Cruikshank was accused of terrorizing African Americans Levi Nelson and Alexander Tillman and not allowing them to exercise their constitutional rights of peaceable assembly. Cruikshank and others could not be prosecuted for killing Nelson and Tillman because only state authorities could prosecute them for murder (which they did not).


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