April V. Taylor
A recent investigation completed by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) over the course of several years uncovered disturbing details about racial terrorism and lynchings in the South between 1877 and 1950. The inventory revealed a bloody history of racial violence that was much more extensive and brutal than anyone had imagined. Southern states are known for their history of racial terrorism, but as the second piece in a series of reports that is taking a closer look at the history of the United States, tracing a line from slavery to mass incarceration and the thousands of lives and years of freedom stolen because of systemic racism, the EJI study took a closer look than just discussing what we already know about racial terrorism in Southern states.
The EJI study is blunt and forthright in its conclusions, stating, “These lynchings were terrorism…African-American men, women, and children were forced to endure the fear, humiliation, and barbarity of this widespread phenomenon unaided…Lynchings were violent and public events that traumatized Black people throughout the country and were largely tolerated by state and federal officials…many African-Americans who were never accused of any crime were tortured and murdered in front of picnicking spectators (including elected officials and prominent citizens).”
In tying the trauma and systemic violence of lynchings to mass incarceration the study illustrates how the acceptance of casual death and suffering through lynching is present in the current criminal justice system by stating, “Mass incarceration, racially biased capital punishment, excessive sentencing, disproportionate sentencing of racial minorities and police abuse of people of color reveal problems in American society that were shaped by the terror era.”
EJI Director Bryan Stevenson points out, “We cannot heal the deep wounds inflicted during the era of racial terrorism until we tell the truth about it. The geographic, political, economic, and social consequences of decades of terror lynchings can still be seen in many communities today and the damage created by lynching needs to be confronted and discussed. Only then can we meaningfully address the contemporary problems that are lynching’s legacy.”
Many of the most iconic images of America’s history of savage beatings, bombings, and bloody violence come from well known events that occurred in Mississippi, Alabama, or Georgia. However, the EJI investigation uncovered a massacre that many know nothing about. That massacre, known as the Elaine Race Riot, occurred in 1919 in Phillips County, Arkansas when 237 people were killed in one of the largest lynching massacres and possibly the bloodiest racial conflict in the history of the United States.
After emancipation, many Black farmers became sharecroppers, and it was common for Southern white plantation owners to exploit Black farmers to profit from their work in much the same way they had during slavery. In Phillips County, Blacks outnumbered whites ten to one, underscoring the need for white landowners to maintain some kind of racial hierarchy that would keep Black farmers in a submissive and subservient role to preserve the white power structure.
In an attempt by Black farmers to organize and demand adequate compensation for their cotton crop, the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America began meeting with farmers in Phillips County. Union founder Robert Hill met with around 100 Black farmers on the night of September 30, 1919 at a church in Hoop Spur. Since many whites took the groups aim of getting better payments for their cotton crops as a direct threat, three white men were sent to break up the meeting. Leaders of the Hoop Spur union had placed armed guards around the church to try to prevent the meeting from being disrupted and to also prevent intelligence gathering by white opponents.
There are varying accounts as to who was responsible, but a verbal confrontation gave way to gunfire in front of the church where the farmers were meeting. White Missouri-Pacific Railroad security officer W.A. Adkins died and white Phillips County deputy sheriff Charles Pratt was wounded. Prepared for backlash, the sharecroppers rallied a self defense force while the Phillips County sheriff simultaneously sent a posse to arrest those suspected of being involved in the shooting. The posse of white men were convinced that a Black conspiracy to murder white planters was unfolding and that they must do everything in their power to stop it.
The summer of 1919 had seen deadly race riots unfold in such major cities as Chicago, Knoxville, Omaha and Washington D.C. as whites tried to reassert their supremacy following World War I, and now the flashpoint of racial tension boiling over into extreme violence had reached rural Arkansas. In much the same way disenfranchisement and biased police forces and courts have stripped Blacks of their constitutional rights and created economic, social and political inequities today, the same disparate circumstances existed in 1919.
In the three days following the shootout at the meeting, a mob of over a thousand white vigilantes roamed the area, randomly attacking and killing Black citizens who dared to have the courage to stand up for their right to not be exploited economically, politically, and socially. Citing a “Negro uprising,” local whites requested Arkansas Governor Charles Hillman Bough help by sending troops, and nearly 600 U.S. troops were sent killing as indiscriminately and viciously as the white vigilantes. In much the same way law enforcement officers kill innocent, unarmed Black people today, soldiers killed many of the Black people they encountered. Gerard Lambert, one of the country’s richest white men, reports an encounter between soldiers and a citizen that is eerily similar to the modern lynchings of police killings. Lambert saw soldiers shoot and kill a Black man who was running from a place he had been hiding. According to Lambert, troops told Blacks who were present that his death should “be a lesson.”
As if the massacre of Black men, women and children was not enough, nearly a hundred blacks were arrested, and in much the same way ruthless prosecutors do now, sheriff’s deputies and Missouri Pacific Railroad agents tortured those arrested to get false confessions of a conspiracy to murder whites. Sham trials, some of which lasted no more than a few minutes each, led to more than sixty Black men being sentenced to prison and twelve being sentenced to death when their only crime was trying to demand fair compensation for their labor. Not a single white person was arrested or convicted for the deaths of hundreds of innocent Black citizens.
A massive collaboration between the NAACP and others, including a prominent black attorney in Little Rock, led to the Moore v. Dempsey Supreme Court decision, and by 1925 all the men were free. The death toll of 237 is a new figure that was profoundly underestimated until the illuminating investigative work of The Equal Justice Initiative. Original 1919 estimates by the Bureau of Investigation and the NAACP placed the death toll between 25 and 80. After identifying 22 separate sites of killings during the massacre, writer Robert Whitaker determined that more than 100 Blacks had been killed.
As David Krugler points out, “The very fact that, almost one hundred years after the massacre, we are still trying to pinpoint the death toll should lead us to a larger reckoning: coming to terms with one of the most violent years in the nation’s history, bloodshed that resulted from efforts to make America safe for democracy.”
The larger reckoning also lies in making the correlation between the racial terrorism of lynchings during slavery and Jim Crow and the modern lynchings of police brutality and murder. Just as the EJI investigation uncovered hundreds more lynchings than we were previously aware of, it is only recently that it has become painfully obvious just how incomplete data regarding police killings is. The use of the criminal justice system to inflict psychological trauma and simultaneously deny justice for crimes perpetrated against Blacks is not a new phenomenon.
As EJI director Stevenson accurately states, “The failings of this era very much reflect what young people are now saying about police shootings. It is about embracing this idea that ‘Black lives matter.’ I also think that the lynching era created a narrative of racial difference, a presumption of guilt, a presumption of dangerousness that got assigned to African Americans in particular – and that’s the same presumption of guilt that burdens young kids living in urban areas who are sometimes menaced, threatened, or shot and killed by law enforcement officers.” For the sake of Black lives, the sake of Black freedom, and the sake of Black dignity, America can no longer run from a full reckoning of the racial terrorism that has been perpetrated against its citizens of color.