Similar circumstances following the 1872 election in Louisiana led not only to the Colfax Massacre and the White League attempt to overthrow the state government, but also to a wave of assassinations and smaller coups that ousted local officials. These grew from a vast and sophisticated misinformation network — similar to the conservative media ecosystem today — though which White vigilantes waged a massive terrorist campaign and inaugurated a century of white supremacist rule.
The election of 1872 came at a pivotal moment in Louisiana. The state had ratified a constitution in 1868 that enfranchised Black men, created integrated public schools and outlawed discrimination. White supremacists, who just years before had fought and died to maintain slavery, responded by massacring Black voters in Bossier, St. Bernard and St. Landry Parishes. They plotted a mass voter suppression and fraud effort to overturn the fledgling interracial democracy in the coming election of 1872. The Grant administration ultimately tossed out these results and installed William Pitt Kellogg as the governor of the state, who probably had the support of a majority coalition of Black and White leftists.
Yet, after having rigged the election through widespread fraud, intimidation and violence, White conservatives refused to accept defeat and set up a shadow government headed by losing gubernatorial candidate John McEnery. They used the conservative press to threaten Black officeholders and eventually created their own paper, the New Orleans Bulletin, to coordinate attacks by their paramilitary arm, the White League.
Much like today’s right-wing media, the Bulletin printed wild conspiracy theories and misinformation. For example, they spread rumors of a Black League that aimed to murder White Louisianans. No such organization existed. Instead, just as today’s white supremacists spread lies that antifa plans to murder White babies, the Bulletin designed this misinformation to drive White League recruitment efforts and to justify their crimes. The Bulletin argued “there is no longer any government in Louisiana but an organized anarchy” — eerily similar to the Trump administration’s bizarre designation of “anarchist jurisdictions” — a premise it used to launch its attempt to overthrow the state government on Sept. 14, 1874.
After the Grant administration put down the coup, which had successfully toppled the state government, the paper shifted its tactics to force Black officeholders to step down. In December, for example, it published racist tirades against T.M.J. Clark, the Black president of the State Insane Asylum, for being a Black officeholder. The ensuing controversy forced Clark and the hospital’s White superintendent to step down despite the fact the conservative White treasurer had been embezzling its funds, a fact the Bulletin didn’t even bother to contest. The White Leaguers at the Bulletin cared little about corruption as long as they wielded power and ousted Black officials and their White allies.
After ousting Clark, the editor turned his sights on Clark’s political allies, Robert Ray and John Gair, both Black members of the Louisiana state legislature, hoping to flip East Feliciana Parish for McEnery and eventually to oust Kellogg. The Bulletin claimed a Black resident “used some insolent language” to insult upstanding White residents, which they blamed on the existence of Black officeholders in the town. According to the white supremacist press, “the white people of this section have stood the rascality of the negro about long enough.” By the end of July 1875, masked vigilantes had run Ray, Gair and Clark out of the parish and replaced them with McEnery supporters. Though the men pleaded their case to Kellogg, the federal government had all but given up enforcing civil rights in Louisiana after years of massacres and coup attempts. The governor told them there was nothing he could do.
Yet simply ousting Gair was hardly enough for the White Leaguers running the Bulletin. Gair, a formerly enslaved carpenter, helped craft the Constitution of 1868 and actually introduced the measure guaranteeing free suffrage protected from “power, bribery, tumult, or other improper practice.” His service at the constitutional convention made him extremely popular among Black voters and, in fact, he was the first Black candidate they had ever voted for. While Gair lived, so too lived hope for interracial democracy.
Local affiliates of the White League orchestrated a plot to murder Gair and relied on the Bulletin to help cover up the crime. They faked a poisoning attempt on a local planter and then spread rumors that implicated Gair and arrested his sister-in-law as an accomplice. The new McEnery-aligned local officials issued a warrant for Gair’s arrest from exile in Baton Rouge. On the way back to the local jailhouse, masked vigilantes allegedly kidnapped and murdered Gair and then lynched his sister-in-law to cover up the fabricated poisoning plot.
The Bulletin spread the impossible story of the poisoning allegation concocted by local White Leaguers, claiming “the entire community” believed them. They celebrated the murder weeks later, claiming it was justified because “it was before a jury of negroes that Gair was to be tried.” Justice, they argued, could only be served by murdering Gair.
The White Leaguers at the Bulletin used similar tactics across the state, even under the eyes of the U.S. Army in New Orleans. They waged a campaign of intimidation and violence against the New Orleans School Board for trying to integrate the public schools, publishing the names of the Black members and singling them out for violence. On Sept. 16, 1875, for example, they claimed Victor Eugène Macarty had insulted a White woman. By the end of the day, White vigilantes brutally beat the Paris-educated Black musician and left him for dead. Days later, the paper threatened the remaining school board members should “rememb[er] the fate of Macarty,” who spent months recovering from the attack.
Like Gair, Macarty was a prominent advocate for equality and brought the first lawsuit against segregated seating in U.S. history. Like Gair, Macarty died exiled from his hometown after the White League ran him out of the city in 1876.
The Trump administration’s refusal to accept the results of the 2020 election draws upon long-standing white supremacist tactics — the same ones that worked so effectively to destroy interracial democracy over a century ago. As in the 1870s, Trump supporters’ rejection of the election is also a rejection of the very premise of interracial democracy. Black cities are deemed dangerous and corrupt, according to Trump, a threat to the “suburban dream” and legal voting alike. The White League made precisely this argument, that “where the black rules, the negro is starved and oppressed.” What made their brand of White supremacy so dangerous, however, was their propaganda arm in the Bulletin, which disseminated misinformation and coordinated attacks against their enemies.
If we are to survive this latest attack on democracy, we must recognize the role played by bad actors spreading misinformation through right-wing media. These festering networks propagate falsehoods, as did their forebears at the Bulletin, helping to organize a dangerous racist movement around a parallel reality, threatening the basis of interracial democracy itself.