Black in the Day…Voter Suppression Violence

September 28, 1868:

 

On this date one of the worst outbreaks of violence during Reconstruction took place in Opelousas, Louisiana. The Opelousas massacre occurred. That city in Louisiana was the site where local Blacks lost their lives by violent whites (many of them Confederate veterans and prominent citizens).

The event started with three local members of the KKK-like Knights of the White Camelia beating teacher and newspaper editor Emerson Bentley—while he was teaching class—because he had promoted voter registration and education for all. After some Black folks, mostly freedmen, came to his rescue, armed white mobs roamed the countryside in a murderous rampage, killing more than 150 people, mostly Black Americans.

The freedmen were met by armed whites determined to defend their town. Shooting occurred by both sides and twenty-nine black prisoners were captured. On September 29, all of the captured prisoners, with the exception of two men, were taken from the prison and executed. The violence at Opelousas continued for weeks to come. The death toll of the massacre resulted in some controversy. Three white Radical Republicans and two Democrats were killed in the assault. Republicans stated that around 200-300 blacks where killed whereas the Democrats denied this claim as fraudulent and stated that only twenty-five to thirty were killed. Historians today have deduced that the Republicans were more correct in their number range.

Other tactics used to suppress black voting rights were to allege charges of larceny, robbery and other property offenses against prominent blacks and whites sympathetic to voting rights causes. This was a another tactic used in addition to murder in order to influence an election in their favor. In many instances, the charge of stealing chickens was used to justify the lynching of blacks and whites of the Republican party trying to register blacks to vote. Many emanate black politicians also met with the same fate on trumped up charges of stealing hogs, chickens and cattle. Regularly accusing white republicans of inciting blacks to murder and robbery, White newspapers all over the state including the Opelousas Courier downplayed black casualties and justified attacks against blacks, whites and  republican newspapers sympathetic to the black cause and as a result, became greater targets of white racist rage. The Opelousas massacre also set the stage for future acts of violence and intimidation whereby lynching became routinized in Louisiana. It became a systematic way by which racist whites sought to assert white supremacy in response to Black resistance.

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