US v. Cruikshank (1875) Can the Federal Government Enforce Protection of Rights?
United States v. Cruikshank (1875)
Can the Federal Government Enforce Protection of Rights?
On Easter Sunday, April 13, 1873, an armed white militia attacked African-American Republican freedmen, who had gathered at the Grant Parish courthouse in Colfax, Louisiana to protect it from the pending Democratic takeover. Although some of the black people were armed and initially defended themselves, estimates were that 100–280 were killed, most of them following surrender, including 50 being held prisoner that night. Three white people were killed. This was in the tense aftermath of months of uncertainty following the disputed gubernatorial election of November 1872, when two parties declared victory at the state and local levels. The election was still unsettled in the spring, and both Republican and Fusionists, who carried Democratic backing, had certified their own slates for the local offices of sheriff (Christopher Columbus Nash) and justice of the peace in Grant Parish, where Colfax is the parish seat. Federal troops reinforced the election of the Republican governor, William Pitt Kellogg.
Some members of the white mob were indicted and charged under the Enforcement Act of 1870. The Act had been designed primarily to allow Federal enforcement and prosecution of actions of the Ku Klux Klan and other secret vigilante groups in preventing black people from voting and murdering them. Among other provisions, the law made it a felony for two or more people to conspire to deprive anyone of his constitutional rights. The white defendants were charged with sixteen counts, divided into two sets of eight each. Among the charges included violating the freedmen's rights to lawfully assemble, to vote, and to bear arms
After the Civil War, the Fourteenth Amendment declared that African Americans were citizens of the United States. Both the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments protected them from discrimination. But how were those rights to be enforced? Did they apply only to the federal government or also to the states?
The Facts The Issue The Decision
•William J. Cruikshank belonged to a group that wanted to reestablish white
government in Louisiana.
• In Colfax, Louisiana, a clash between
this group and some African Americans resulted in the deaths of 100 blacks.
• Cruikshank was convicted of trying to
take away the civil rights of African
Americans. Cruikshank claimed
that his conviction
because his actions
did not come under
the authority of federal law. The Court overturned
Cruikshank’s conviction saying that the Fourteenth Amendment did not apply to individuals but only to the actions of states, and that the charges did not specify that he intended to deprive African Americans of their rights.
WHY IT MATTERS
Cruikshank, along with several other Supreme Court rulings in the 1870s, severely limited the impact of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments. Although Congress passed several civil rights laws giving the federal government the power to enforce
the protections of these amendments, the Court stripped away the authority of those laws.
Not long after Cruikshank, army troops were withdrawn from the South, and the federal government abandoned its efforts to protect African Americans. In the aftermath, white southerners used unfair laws and violence to limit African Americans’ right to vote and to take away other rights as well. Not until the middle of the twentieth century did federal courts begin to strike down these laws as unconstitutional.
CONNECT TO YOUR WORLD
Later Court decisions upheld the federal government’s authority on the civil rights protections provided by the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments. For that reason,
employers cannot turn down jobseekers, schools cannot deny admissions, and restaurants cannot refuse to serve people because of their race or religion.
• Analyze how people with different points of view have responded to the decision.
• Write an editorial agreeing or disagreeing with decision/ position. Give support from your notes and knowledge of the Era.
• Write an essay: explaining how significant the Fourteenth Amendment is to American society today.