The legacy of the post-Civil War era when blacks were relegated to second class citizenship lives today, more than 150 years since the Union victory and the subsequent amendments to the Constitution brought a formal end to slavery in the United States.
That history hangs over us today in the form of statues honoring Southern military leaders who led the battle to preserve slavery in this country. That’s what the war was about. Read the secession proclamations of the various confederate states. The statues arrived half a century or more later, after the Supreme Court’s 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision legalized racial discrimination and segregation in this country for nearly 70 years. Those practices were partially ended by the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, then they were formally outlawed by the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The Alfred Mouton statue in downtown Lafayette, like those in New Orleans honoring Southern leaders of the treasonous rebellion against the United States over slavery, went up during the Jim Crow era. They are all monuments to white supremacy and the barbarism of slavery as it existed on plantations and some farms across the South.
Mouton led vigilante raids before the start of the war, hunting down runaway slaves and attacking those who protected them. He was killed in the Battle of Mansfield in northwest Louisiana in April 1864. The radio interview with Frank Crocco and Kirk Alexander of the Move the Mindset group, focuses on the broad cultural effort the group is undertaking to move Lafayette to move that statue.
While the war ended official slavery, the belief in white supremacy and the imagined glory of the Lost Cause persisted. The end of Reconstruction after the election of 1877 was actually brought about through a widespread armed rebellion of whites called the redeemer movement that began in Colfax, Louisiana, on Easter Sunday morning, April 13, 1873.
Nicholas Lemann wrote about this in his 2006 book “Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War.” Although the book concentrates primarily on events in Mississippi and Washington, it opens with a description of the Colfax Massacre, which became the model for the Redeemer Movement across the South that ended Reconstruction within four years.
Reading Lemann’s book sent me down a trail of books that detailed the post Civil War, post-Plessy, pre-Civil Rights history of Louisiana and the South. That history is harrowing, even in book form.
Lemann mentioned W.E.B. DuBois’ book “The Souls of Black Folk” which focused on the Reconstruction era when the federal government pushed to create a more equal South over a 12-year period following the end of the Civil War.
There were two excellent books on the Colfax Massacre published in 2008. LeeAnna Keith’s book “The Colfax Massacre: The untold story of Black Power, White Terror, and the Death of Reconstruction,” was published by Oxford University Press. Charles Lane’s “The Day Freedom Died: The Colfax Massacre, the Supreme Court and the Betrayal of Reconstruction” was published by Henry Holt. Both books go into considerable detail about the events leading up to the massacre and the fallout from it in federal district court in New Orleans and ultimately the Supreme Court of the United States.
Here’s a paragraph from the description of Keith’s book that explains the significance of the events in Grant Parish:
On Easter Sunday, 1873, in the tiny hamlet of Colfax, Louisiana, more than 150 members of an all-black Republican militia, defending the town’s courthouse, were slain by an armed force of rampaging white supremacists. The most deadly incident of racial violence of the Reconstruction era, the Colfax Massacre unleashed a reign of terror that all but extinguished the campaign for racial equality.
Douglas Blackmon’s “Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II” won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for NonFiction. Blackmon was Atlanta Bureau Chief for the Wall Street Journal when he began working on the book based on trying to identify the history of a single black man who died working in an ore mine near Birmingham, Alabama, in the post-Civil War era. Blackmon discovered a system of vagrancy laws that were used to arrest black men and women who were then bonded out of jail by whites. In return, the blacks had to work to pay off their bonds. In most instances, the work never paid enough to allow that to happen. What emerged was a system of peonage that extended across the South from ore mines, to creosote plantations. to brick factories.
Also traces the legal fight to end the practices which did not succeed until the start of World War II. It turns out that the administration of President Franklin Roosevelt wanted the practices ended so that it could not be used against the U.S. in propaganda efforts by the Germans and Japanese.
Lafayette’s Move the Mindset group has organized a book club that is reading this book now.
Greta de Jong’s “A Different Day: African American Struggles for Justice in Rural Louisiana 1900-1950” was published by the University of North Carolina Press in 2002. de Jong is a native of New Zealand and brings a fresh set of eyes to her work, unburdened by preconceived notions about the subject matter. One benefit she brings to her analysis is a recognition of Louisiana’s diverse cultural background and our geography — that is, the country is different from the cities. The book is meticulously researched and documented and shines a light on those stories that were far removed from the national media lens.
Adam Fairclough’s “Race and Democracy: The Civil Rights Struggle in Louisiana 1915-1972” was published in 1995 by the University of Georgia Press. It was re-issued with a new preface in 2008. The book looks at the Civil Rights movement in Louisiana starting with the founding of the New Orleans chapter of the NAACP and concludes with the election of Edwin Edwards as governor in 1972. That was the first election when the state Legislature had been redistricted based on the one-man, one-vote premise of the Voting Rights Act. The 1973 Legislative session marked the first time that significant numbers of blacks were represented in those chambers since the end of Reconstruction.
Lester Gauthier gave me “Witness to the Truth: My Struggle for Human Rights in Louisiana.” It was in the library of his late sister-in-law. The book is the story of John H. Scott who lived in Lake Providence, Louisiana. He worked many trades during his lifetime, before becoming an ordained minister. Much of the contents of the book are based on interviews Mr. Scott did with University of New Orleans History professor John Logsdon. Logsdon had transcribed the interviews with the intention of writing a book on Mr. Scott. He became ill though. One of Scott’s daughters, Cleo Scott Brown, graduated from Grambling State University and then Ball State University in Indiana. She took the transcripts of her father’s interviews, did additional research and produced a tremendous book that details the struggle for basic rights in East Carroll Parish.
Mr. Scott subscribed to several black news journals that circulated nationally in the early and mid-20th Century. He managed to keep his community informed of national developments and to convince a small number of them to continue to try to register to vote, despite intimidation and special rules which required whites to vouch for blacks who tried to register. No whites would vouch for any blacks, even those they had known for decades.
The East Carroll voter registration standoff led to federal intervention in Louisiana’s voting procedures. By 1961, Mr. Scott and others convinced the U.S. Justice Department file suit to force East Carroll Parish to allow blacks to register to vote. After a prolonged court fight that spread over several venues, Scott and 25 other Lake Providence blacks were allowed to register. They voted in the 1963 Democratic primary for governor.
After securing the right to vote, Mr. Scott made these comments:
In the next election, which was for the school board, we were successful in getting two black people to run, and at the end of the day, we had elected our first Negro since Reconstruction, Rev. Francis Joseph Atlas, the same man who had suffered through the economic boycott. It had taken eighty-four years to regain the right to vote after the last black elected officials were removed from office at gunpoint in 1879, and almost ninety years to elect another black person to office. We had persevered through all kinds of hardships, but we were finally there.
The University of South Carolina Press published Witness to Truth.
The Equal Justice Institute in Birmingham, Alabama, published its report on lynching in 2015. “Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror” documents the names of 4,000 lynching victims across the United States. These are just the known victims. There are likely others. Based on that research, the Institute published a breakdown of lynchings by parish/county.
This was my path to coming to understanding who we are as a people — Louisianans, southerners, Americans.
Because of this, statues honoring Alfred Mouton and other traitors should have no place of honor in public spaces. Mouton’s record as a vigilante should be sufficient basis for tearing the statue down, not just moving it.