Saturday, September 10, 2011

Elaine, Arkansas 1919 and the Struggle for Justice That Remade a Nation

White mob, Elaine Arkansas

Katherine Marino of the San Francisco Gate, reviews, 'On the Laps of Gods,' by Robert Whitaker, on 27 July 2008: In the summer of 1919, a wave of labor strikes, lynchings and anti-communist violence swept the nation's cities, from Omaha and Chicago to Washington, D.C. The nadir of this "red summer" occurred in Phillips County, Ark., in the small town of Elaine on the Mississippi Delta, where more than 100 black sharecroppers were brutally murdered over three days. Award-winning journalist Robert Whitaker unearths this tragedy and its legal aftermath in vivid detail in his compelling new book, "On the Laps of Gods: The Red Summer of 1919 and the Struggle for Justice that Remade a Nation."
African American sharecroppers being escorted by soldiers, Elaine Arkansas

The "Elaine Massacre" erupted when the town's black sharecroppers organized to secure a more equitable price for their cotton. To counteract the unjust debt peonage system that long victimized them, they formed the Progressive Farmers and Household Union and gathered to discuss legal counsel. Hearing that sharecropper union members were meeting for "communist" purposes in a church close to Elaine, the town sheriff and his agents arrived at the site, and opened fire on the men who stood guard. When a white man was shot, Elaine's residents retaliated fiercely, not only with gruesome mob violence, but also with machine-gun-wielding U.S. federal troops instructed to kill any black people who showed signs of resistance. In the end, five white men and almost 200 black men, women and children were dead.
Black Little Rock attorney Scipio Africanus Jones

The town indicted more than 100 black people for the murder of the white men, and the Arkansas state court sentenced 12 sharecroppers to death by electrocution. A five-year legal battle ensued, involving trials, hearings and disclosures of prisoner confessions induced by torture. The action was led by the NAACP, which sent reporter Walter White to investigate, and brilliant black Little Rock attorney Scipio Africanus Jones, who emerges as the real hero of Whitaker's story.
African America, Little Rock attorney Scipio Africanus Jones

Born a slave, Jones had "pulled himself up by his own bootstraps," becoming one of the country's most successful black lawyers. Using his professional clout to champion the equal rights of his race, he was driven by a life philosophy that fused the conflicting ideas of W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington. Jones recognized that the Elaine prisoners had not received their constitutionally guaranteed due process and protested the Arkansas state court's violation of the defendants' Fourteenth Amendment rights.

Despite the fact that the generally conservative U.S. Supreme Court had long distanced itself from state proceedings, and never before dismissed a verdict in a state criminal trial for "unfair" proceedings, Jones' last-ditch effort to file a writ of habeas corpus was, astoundingly, successful. Guided by Oliver Wendell Holmes, Moore v. Dempsey established the principle that a mob-dominated trial in a state court was invalid, and the 12 men were ultimately freed.

Elaine, Arkansas 1919

Whitaker reveals the great triumph and significance of this case by richly contextualizing its place in American legal history. He roots the massacre and its national trial into the larger story of the Supreme Court's shaping of national politics. Focusing especially on Reconstruction-era Supreme Court decisions, Whitaker demonstrates how a series of 1870s cases reduced the Fourteenth Amendment to a symbolic but largely meaningless gesture for social and civic equality, and paved the way for the state-sponsored terrorism in Arkansas. He also argues, somewhat simplistically, that the most substantial factors contributing to Reconstruction's demise were these Supreme Court cases, "after [which] the other causes of America's long decline ... lined up like dominoes," obscuring a more complex alchemy of political, economic, social and cultural forces that also importantly contributed to Reconstruction's end.
Elaine, Arkansas 1919

Nevertheless, Whitaker's book is a deeply researched and evocatively written history that deserves to be widely read. He has uncovered a long-overlooked story that challenges triumphalist narratives of U.S. democracy. "On the Laps of Gods" begs reconsideration, as well, of America's 1960s civil rights movement. Its roots, Whitaker suggests, can be found in the political activism of Elaine's organizing sharecroppers and in Jones, a visionary figure who successfully altered the course of American justice. (source: San Francisco Gate, by Katherine Marino)

On the Laps of Gods
The Red Summer of 1919 and the Struggle for Justice
That Remade a Nation

By Robert Whitaker


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