The History Department at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign condemns the White supremacist insurrection against the ratification of the presidential election on January 6, 2021.
As historians, we believe these acts resonate deeply with the violence that followed Emancipation and Reconstruction. We've been here before. In the 1870s, White supremacist rebels violently overthrew legally elected state and municipal governments, bringing Reconstruction to an end. In Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877, Eric Foner describes the Easter Sunday Colfax Massacre (1873) as “the bloodiest single instance of racial carnage in the Reconstruction Era.”
The Colfax Massacre can be traced to disputes over Louisiana’s 1872 gubernatorial election. The election resulted in dual governments, a White supremacist regime composed of white liberal Republicans and Democrats and a radical biracial, “Black and Tan,” Republican administration. After skirmishes, a paramilitary group torched the courthouse where African Americans were taken shelter. They slaughtered some 165 African Americans, many after they surrendered.
The Colfax Massacre occurred during the “panic of 1873-1877” and was a response to African Americans’ newly won rights and political mobilization. It was a violent reaction by a White supremacist political party to African American men voting in the interests of their families and communities. Yet, in United States v. Cruikshank (1876) the Supreme Court made a unanimous decision to overturn the convictions of the White insurgents. Chief Justice Morrison Waite dropped all charges because the violations fell under state rather than federal jurisdiction.
The assault on the U.S. Capitol was motivated by the same racism that in the 1870s led to the Colfax Massacre.
Unlike the perpetrators of the Colfax Massacre and similar atrocities, the White supremacists who stormed the Capitol must be held accountable. They aimed to prevent the certification of the legitimate election of Joseph Biden and Kamala Harris who won a clear mandate by a margin of seven million votes. Terrorist cells allegedly planned to capture, try, and execute elected officials. Reconciliation is impossible without reckoning.
Our work as historians, inside and outside the academy, is to tell the truth, which will disrupt master narratives that “Make America Great Again” fantasies have tried to re-entrench. As historians, we seek to use our training to help guide our fellow citizens towards what W.E.B. Du Bois, in Black Reconstruction in America, called “abolition democracy," a democracy which prioritizes racial justice.