Sept. 30 marks the 100th anniversary of the Elaine Massacre, often characterized as the most deadly racial confrontation in Arkansas history and perhaps the bloodiest post-Civil War racial conflict in the United States.
The massacre certainly was racially motivated. African-American sharecroppers had gathered at a church in Hoop Spur, 3 miles north of Elaine, working to obtain better payment for their cotton crops. White plantation owners. Black sharecroppers. This was the racial landscape in Jim Crow America.
What we should additionally note on the heels of the Labor Day weekend is the labor and organizing intersection. The sharecroppers were black, certainly. The plantation owners were white. But the violence that ensued, its severity, was almost certainly also related to labor. The African-American sharecroppers were at a meeting of the Progressive Farmers and Household Union. At a church.
We might recall a similar moment in the career and martyrdom of Martin Luther King Jr. The Rev. King was threatened many times over the course of his civil rights advocacy, but it was while he was at a Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike that he was killed.
Racial resentment runs as a thread through all of American history (see the 1619 Project). Clearly the massacres in Elaine had a racial component, one for which all of us should repent and work for reparations.
But Elaine, and Memphis, and so many other moments in our history, are also and just as much about the violent repression of workers as they are about race, and so soon after Labor Day weekend, it's worth keeping that in mind.
Christians in particular have been mindful of labor as a justice issue, one that pushes up peacefully against violence. Labor Sunday (something some of us observe every year) was taken up very early during the rise of social Christianity in the United States.
Nine years before the Elaine Massacre, organizers in Chicago launched an appeal inviting congregations to either bring workers into the pulpit to speak about labor or have the preachers themselves preach on labor from the pulpit. A basic principal of the movement: "The aims of the labor movement were fully consonant with the teachings of Christianity."
Divines in Chicago argued some of the worst enemies organized labor has are very ardent churchgoers. Those attentive to the story and life of Jesus will notice the incongruence. The very faith popular among the working class, a faith in a very working class Jesus, could not and should not be a class-constrained faith (any more than it should be a racially constrained one).
In the end, as a person of faith, I'm particularly troubled the Elaine Massacre started on the grounds of a church. The churches seem to play an integral, and problematic, role in racial and class tensions. We are either the space in which the social gospel may flourish, or we are the enemy of organized labor. Both in a sense are true. As a pastor, I hope I'm furthering the social gospel connection while dampening the ways we have been historically the enemy of organized labor or exclusionary of the working class.
But I'm also aware of the dramatic middle class captivity of the church in North America. It's perhaps our greatest heresy.
NAN Religion on 09/07/2019
Print Headline: Race, class both factors in conflict