64 Parishes

White League

A paramilitary organization aligned with the Democratic Party, the White League played a central role in the overthrow of Republican rule and intimidation of African Americans in Louisiana during Reconstruction.

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White League

Library of Congress

"The Union As It Was" illustration by Thomas Nast published by Harpers's Weekly, 1874.

What was the White League?

During Reconstruction, the White League was a paramilitary organization aligned with the Democratic Party. The organization helped overthrow Republican rule and participated in often violent intimidation of African Americans.

Why did the White League form?

The idea of a “White Man’s Party” had been discussed around Louisiana since Black men gained the right to vote in 1868. The idea gained more support in the 1870s, when federal forces occupied Louisiana during Reconstruction. Northern “carpetbaggers” came to the state and dominated the Republican party. Republicans supported voter registration and civil rights for formerly enslaved people and other African Americans. In 1872 Republican William Pitt Kellogg beat John McEnery in a contested governor’s race. During this time, Black plaintiffs successfully sued white Louisianans who had violated civil rights and public accommodation statutes for the first time. Because of these events, white voters, who feared losing power, grew receptive to white supremacist rhetoric opposing Republican rule. Most native white voters left the Republican Party during and immediately after the election of 1872. Consequently, Louisiana’s politics became racially divided.

In the nineteenth century, civically active men often belonged to one or more political clubs. After the surrender of General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox, Union and Loyal leagues formed in Louisiana and across the South. Republicans formed political clubs to engage recently enfranchised Black men and spread Republican messages to a receptive audience. Republicans appealed first to Black Civil War veterans and later to freedmen. Likewise, Democrats reestablished their own political clubs after the war. The White League eventually grew out of this long-established tradition of political clubs.

The first White League was formed in late April 1874 at the St. Landry Parish courthouse in Opelousas. While planning for the upcoming political season, the St. Landry Democrats also called for the formation of a political movement based on white supremacy. Giving it the name “White League,” the committee printed a message in the Opelousas Courier the next day. As a result, similar clubs formed in neighboring parishes. Many parish and local clubs with similar goals simply renamed their organizations from something like the “Fifth Ward Democratic Club” to the “Fifth Ward White League.” The White League spread quickly throughout Acadiana in late spring and reached New Orleans by late June.

How did the White League use violence?

The White League quickly changed from a political group to a military-inspired organization. Its leaders were “captains” and “lieutenants.” Members were given military ranks such as “first sergeant” or “private.” The structure shows the influence of Confederate veterans in the organization. It also showed how violence and intimidation had played a major role in determining political outcomes since the Civil War. While some were attracted to the White League because of their interest in politics, others were attracted by militarism and the desire to punish Republicans. The level to which a White League would use violent intimidation tactics depended entirely on who ruled the local club. Unlike the Democratic Party, the White League didn’t have a statewide platform. Local chapters had unique characteristics and often focused on local issues and personal grudges.

The New Orleans White League, called the Crescent City White League, was the best organized, had the most members, and was led by capable veteran Confederate officers. Many native-born white men who hadn’t fought in the Civil War also supported the league in the city, hoping for both adventure and a chance to regain political control over Louisiana. Throughout the summer of 1874, the Crescent City White League bought guns and ammunition and trained its members. By September it resembled an army more than a political club. This wasn’t an accident. By this time the league had shifted focus from the upcoming November mid-term elections to a possible violent overthrow of Louisiana’s Republican government.

While there are many vague references to White League activity during Reconstruction, two incidents are directly linked to White League clubs. In late August 1874, members of a White League chapter murdered six white and four Black Republicans in Red River Parish during a multi-day episode known as the Coushatta Massacre. Politics fueled the conflict, but local grudges also played a role. Two weeks later, on September 14, 1874, thousands of men fought each other in the streets of New Orleans during what became known as the Battle of Liberty Place. The violence was a result of a failed attempt by the Crescent City White League to overthrow the state government. More than thirty people died in the battle. As a result of the violence attributed to the White League, the league’s leadership feared that they would lose their ability to portray their cause as justified.

These two incidents made it clear that Republicans were unable to protect their constituents or themselves. Only federal troops kept the league from taking over the state government. Even more discouraging for Louisiana’s Republicans, a surprisingly large number of editors in the national press supported the White League’s efforts to obtain what they saw as “home rule.”

What were the lasting effects of the White League?

The White League was last active in the chaotic weeks leading up to the Compromise of 1877. In support of Francis T. Nicholls, the league patrolled New Orleans and secured the Supreme Court of Louisiana, which was housed in the Cabildo on Jackson Square. As Nicholls took office later that year, the league dissolved as a political body but became the foundation of the Louisiana National Guard. Perhaps the most significant legacy of the White League was that it served as a model for successive generations’ use of fear tactics to maintain white supremacy. Participating in the White League remained a badge of honor for generations of white political candidates and, in 1891, led to the construction of a monument to their victory at the foot of Canal Street in New Orleans. This monument was permanently removed in 2017.