Pearl River Cities throughout America are erupting once again over the extra juridical killing of a black man by the police. Some voices are calling for calm, while President Trump calls for chaos. The “powers that be” would have us believe that this is one rouge cop with a record of police brutality. The protestors would have us believe this is part of the systemic racism that has brought the stain of blood on our country and its people since the founding.
Talking to J. Chester Johnson, the Arkansas-bred, New York City-based, poet and scholar about his new book, Damaged Heritage: The Elaine Race Massacre and a Story of Reconciliation, on Wade’s World doesn’t leave much room for any conclusion other than the fact that country remains poisoned by the unreconciled racism dating back to slavery. We’re only a bit over one-hundred years after the massacre in Elaine, Arkansas in the rich delta farmland in Phillips County, near Helena on the Mississippi River. The several days of killing ended with somewhere between 100 and 235 African-American dead and a couple of whites. This was state-sponsored terrorism. Most of the killing was done by federal troops that were mobilized from Fort Pike near Little Rock, originally named after Zebulon Pike, credited with the name of Pike’s Peak and later named Camp Joseph T. Robinson after the Arkansas Senator. Some of the white deaths came from their friendly fire. In the hullabaloo, the Governor at that time led the troops to Elaine for the killing.
In classic American fashion this was set off by the combustible mixture of class and race. Robert Hill, an African-American coming back from service in World War I, was dissatisfied with the piddling paid to sharecroppers when cotton prices were at record highs in the war years. Intuitively understanding the power of uniting community and labor interests, he began organizing several chapters of the Progressive Farmers and Household Union in and around Elaine. Local planters, who were both employers and landlords, getting wind of the organizing, heard there was a meeting in a church in Hoops Spur. A deputy sheriff and a carload went out late the night of September 30, 1919, to roust participants and disrupt the meeting, firing some shots towards the church. Hill and the members were alert to potential trouble and had armed guards around the church. It was on, and they fired back, killing one, and wounding the deputy. Then came the deluge in subsequent days and a “killing field,” as Johnson calls it once the troops came as well as others from Tennessee, Mississippi, and southern Arkansas looking for blood, including Johnson’s grandfather who lived in Monticello and came up from McGehee where he worked for the Missouri-Pacific Railroad there.
The only bright notes in the Elaine story are Hill’s organizing, the work of the Little Rock-based lawyer Scipio Africanus Jones with the NAACP, and the renowned African-American journalist Ida B. Wells whose reporting and investigation brought news of the massacre coast to coast and out of the delta. The long shadow cast by the events in Elaine is also slightly brightened by the decision written by Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendall Holmes in Moore v. Dempsey that established the legal precedent central in the later civil rights movement that federal courts could intervene and overturn state and local courts where there were manifest instances denying the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution because of bias and racism.
What a horror! What did we learn? Johnson speaks of reconciliation in his book and on a personal level he seems to have found it, but in a hundred years we seem to have traded lynching and massacres for state sponsored racism at every level and police brutality and court approved immunity.
Listen to the protests in the streets of America now. Same song. Different verse.