Review of Unpunished Murder: Massacre at Colfax and the Quest for Justice

Unpunished Murder: Massacre at Colfax and the Quest for Justice
by Lawrence Goldstone
Middle School, High School   Scholastic Focus/Scholastic    266 pp.    g
8/18    978-1-338-23945-4    $17.99
e-book ed.  978-1-338-23948-5    $17.99

In 1873, a mob of armed white men massacred more than one hundred black “freedmen” in the town of Colfax in central Louisiana. Setting the stage for the horrific events, Goldstone traces several important ideas through the early history of the United States: the growth in influence of the Supreme Court after John Marshall introduced the concept of judicial review; the uneasy balance of power between state and federal governments; and the racism written into the Constitution as the “Three-Fifths Compromise” and subsequently espoused by America’s leading politicians and judges. During Reconstruction, emboldened white Southerners turned to the terrorism of white supremacy groups to undermine the work of the self-termed Radical Republicans in Congress (who “intended to forcibly abolish racial inequality”), the Colfax Massacre being a prime example. After a mistrial, three of the nine defendants were found guilty, but a circuit judge overturned their convictions, and the Supreme Court upheld that decision, essentially vitiating the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments. The book is, in large part, the story of how racism evolves, persisting in laws and politics despite major social advances. The anemic response of the American justice system in this particular episode, especially given the scale of the tragedy and the weight of the evidence, directly presages the end of Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow. Extensive back matter includes a glossary, a bibliography, source notes, and an index.

From the September/October 2018 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Jonathan Hunt
Jonathan Hunt is the coordinator of library media services at the San Diego County Office of Education.

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