The Colfax Massacre or Colfax Riot (as the events are termed on the official state historic marker) occurred on Easter Sunday, April 13, 1873, in Colfax, Louisiana, the seat of Grant Parish.
In the wake of a contested election for governor of Louisiana and local offices, whites armed with rifles and a small cannon overpowered freedmen and state militia (also black) trying to control the parish courthouse. White Republican officeholders were not attacked. Most of the freedmen were killed after they surrendered, and nearly 50 were killed later that night after being held as prisoners for several hours. Estimates of the number of dead varied. Two U.S. Marshals who visited the site on April 15, 1873, and buried dead reported 62 fatalities. A military report to Congress in 1875 identified 81 black men who had been killed by name, and also estimated that 15-20 bodies were thrown into the Red River and another 18 secretly buried ó for a grand total of "at least 105." A state historical marker from 1950 noted fatalities as three whites and 150 blacks. Taking into account all available estimates, author Charles Lane has estimated a minimum death toll of 62 and maximum death toll of 81.
The attack had the most fatalities of violent events following the disputed contest in 1872 between Republicans and Democrats for the Louisiana governor's office, in which both candidates claimed victory. Although the Fusionist-dominated state "returning board", which ruled on validity of votes, at first declared John McEnery and his Democratic slate the winners, the board split. A pro-Kellogg faction declared Republican William P. Kellogg the victor. Both men held inauguration parties. A Republican federal judge in New Orleans finally ruled that the Republican-majority legislature be seated.
The background of the situation was the struggle for power in the postwar environment, with a growing insurgency among former Confederates in the state. In Louisiana "every election between 1868 and 1876 was marked by rampant violence and pervasive fraud." White Democrats worked to regain power, officially or unofficially.
Federal prosecution and conviction of a few perpetrators at Colfax under the Enforcement Act led to a key Supreme Court case, United States v. Cruikshank. In this 1876 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that protections of the Fourteenth Amendment did not apply to the actions of individuals, but only to the actions of state governments. Thus, the federal government could no longer use the Enforcement Act of 1870 to prosecute actions by paramilitary groups such as rifle clubs or the White League, which had chapters forming across Louisiana beginning in 1874.
In the late 20th and early 21st century, there has been increasing attention given to the events at Colfax and the Supreme Court case, and their meaning in U.S. history.