Aiyana Jones was seven years old when a policeman shot and killed her in her Detroit home. Two mistrials released the offending officer from any responsibility for her death. In December 2014, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund named 76 unarmed men, women, and children killed by police throughout the U.S. Aiyana was the youngest. First on the list was Amadou Diallo, killed in New York City on February 4, 1999. Again, the courts cleared the officers of all charges.On April 12, 2015, Baltimore police arrested and injured Freddie Gray. He died one week later. Six officers facing criminal charges accused city state attorney Marilyn Mosby of violating the United States Constitution. Ironically, it is the recurrance of deadly police behavior and subsequent acquittals that violate the Constitution. This pattern began 142 years ago.
On Easter Sunday, April 13, 1873 in Colfax, Louisiana, white Democrats, enraged by the outcome of the 1872 elections, forced their way into the courthouse. Three weeks earlier, after a judge ruled that the black Republican slate be seated, the elected freedmen began running the town from within the barricaded building. Meanwhile, the sheriff and his supporters spread rumors that blacks were planning to murder all the white men in town and to defile the white women. A Klansman proclaimed, “Boys, this is a struggle for white supremacy.”
After several hours, the vigilantes set the courthouse on fire, then shot and killed the black men fleeing from the building. Some 50 freedmen were captured. That night, the captors murdered all but one of their prisoners. Estimates of the total the number of black victims range from 62 to 153. Many of their bodies disappeared into the Red River or into mass graves.
The aftermath devastated the meaning of freedom for former slaves. Only 3 of the 98 indicted offenders received convictions. Then, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the verdicts and crippled the 14th Amendment by ruling that equal protection was up to the states.
Louisiana did not punish any of the perpetrators. Most southern states would not prosecute white men for attacks against freedmen.
The ruling had a secondary crippling effect on 15th Amendment. Paramilitary groups were now free to intimidate black voters. Terrorism helped white Democrats win the 1876 elections and ultimately to dismantle Reconstruction.
Among blacks throughout the South, the Colfax massacre was proof that in any confrontation with whites, they stood at a fatal disadvantage. Today, in the North and in the South, white men can shoot black men while claiming the right to “stand [their] ground,” or that they thought they were in danger, or that they were just doing their job, or that they meant to aim their Taser, not their loaded gun.