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A Century Ago, African Americans Were Massacred in Elaine, Ark. We’re Still Reckoning With That Moment

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This post is in partnership with the History News Network, the website that puts the news into historical perspective. A version of the article below was originally published at HNN.

One hundred years ago, in the “Red Summer” of 1919, rampaging whites killed hundreds and perhaps thousands of African Americans in pogroms and race riots. One of the most murderous events occurred in the Mississippi Delta in and around Elaine, Ark. Late on the night of Sept. 30, at a church located at a country cross-roads called Hoop Spur, about 100 African Americans met to organize the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America. On the eve of cotton harvest, small farmers, tenants and sharecroppers demanded higher prices for their cotton from local white elites or pledged to go around them entirely by taking their cotton to market somewhere else. Pure greed set the landed gentry against them. White authorities claimed black unionists were organizing an “insurrection” and mass killing of white people, rather than getting an equitable price for their crops. Their unionization drove the planters wild. What happened next should live in infamy.

Blacks far outnumbered whites in Phillips County, but whites had most of the guns. A carload of whites approached the meeting and exchanged fire with black people guarding the church. One white man was killed and another wounded, possibly by stray bullets from their own side. Hundreds of white vigilantes, dozens of law enforcement officials, and most deadly of all, 500 U.S. soldiers mobilized from nearby Camp Pike by the Arkansas governor, led hellish assaults for the next four days. According to proud accounts by those who did it, mobs went from house to house killing black occupants. Troops marched through forests where people hid and used machine guns to mow them down. One modest estimate counted 100 to 237 dead, but others thought hundreds more black bodies clogged the rivers and were covered over in the woods.

Why did this happen? The Elaine Massacre highlighted racial holocausts sweeping the United States in the wake of World War I. In 1919, the United States was in the grip of a racist, anti-labor, anti-communist fervor. The Russian Revolution, the Seattle General Strike and union unrest set off media and government campaigns against the left, unions, immigrants, Latinos and African Americans. Red Summer weaponized white workers and white ethnics to attack blacks encroaching on neighborhoods and jobs. Employers brought in blacks to break strikes and played off workers against each other. Red Summer helped kill a national strike of 350,000 Steel Workers, destroy interracial packinghouse worker organizing in Chicago and undermine unions everywhere.

The white heat of racial massacre followed in Elaine based on the South’s legacy of slavery and institutional violence against black people. A white landowning class in the Arkansas Delta had made millions from slave labor and, with support by whites from other social classes, crushed black freedom after the Civil War through lynching, disfranchisement and segregation. In 1919, the price of cotton had shot sky high, and white landlords, merchants and cotton factors stood to gain a windfall profit if they could keep the black workers who planted, tended and harvested the cotton from getting a fair price for their crops.

The context was also national. During and after the Red Summer, black soldiers who had returned from World War I had weapons and knew how to use them. “New Negro” racial uplift and organizing blossomed. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Universal Negro Improvement Association led by Black nationalist Marcus Garvey both had branches in Arkansas. The black press, particularly the Chicago Defender, connected black resistance movements, as a million or more African Americans left the South for industrial jobs elsewhere, sometimes joined unions and fought fiercely against racism. Black advancement and resistance threatened the Jim Crow system, North and South.

The mass shootings in Elaine highlighted the ferocity and cruelty of racism and revealed the perversion of the criminal justice system. White authorities indicted no white murderers but undertook mass arrests of blacks, held nearly 300 of them in a jail in Helena designed to hold 48, and used torture and beatings to elicit “confessions.” A Phillips County grand jury indicted 122 black people. In two separate trials, all-white juries took only minutes to convict 12 union members and sentence them to die in the electric chair. The orgy of violence in 1919 helped a rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan as a mass movement and its political takeover in parts of the lower Midwest and the South. Racial violence didn’t stop. In 1921, in Tulsa, Okla., whites raped, murdered, looted, shot and bombed from the air to destroy the thriving black community of Greenwood. Hundreds died as whites burned the business district and some 200 homes to the ground.

Elaine helped to open the floodgates of violence, but left a few kernels of hope and seeds of organizing for the future. Black writer and organizer Ida B. Wells-Barnett, black Arkansas attorney Scipio Jones and the NAACP saved the Elaine Twelve from the electric chair. By 1925, they were all released from prison (and spirited quickly out of the state), and their case before the U.S. Supreme Court (Moore V. Dempsey, 1923) strengthened the court’s interpretation of the due process clause of the 14th Amendment to correct state criminal trials that blatantly ignored the rights of defendants. The ghosts of Elaine unionists also reached out to the next generation when the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union organized in the Arkansas Delta again in the 1930s. Racial terrorism and cotton mechanization destroyed the STFU too, but civil rights organizers in the 1960s chose to remember that blacks and whites in Ku Klux Klan country for a time successfully organized this bi-racial union.

Today, unfortunately, there is no closure on racism. When the Elaine Legacy Center remembered the town’s martyrs by planting a tree last August, someone cut the tree down. In a town of 500 or so people, about 40% of them African Americans, median household income hovers between $16,000 and $19,000, and some 40% live in poverty. Racial terror (and later, farm mechanization) undercut the fortunes of generations of black farmers and workers.

It remains extremely important that we remember signal events in our history, but also how we remember them. The great sociologist W.E.B. DuBois later explained that racial separation and violence drove a stake through the heart of nascent labor movement in the South, destroying the potential of union incomes for white as well as black workers. Elaine was a turning point, but it was only one of many.

We need to remember the past in order to do something about its legacies. There should be federal and state investigations to clarify what happened in Elaine so that the next generation does not continue to believe the myths created by those who carried out the murders, to consider ways to repair the economic and social damage, and to fight anew against white supremacy and terrorism. The evil of the “red summer” of 1919 still haunts the land. Evil’s still on the loose, and you’ve got to take a side.

Michael K. Honey holds the Fred and Dorothy Haley endowed professorship of Humanities and is a founding faculty of the University of Washington Tacoma (1990), where he teaches African-American and labor history and Martin Luther King Studies. His most recent book is To the Promised Land: Martin Luther King and the Fight for Economic Justice (W.W. Norton 2018).

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