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For nearly 100 years an Arkansas tragedy that may have been the nation's most deadly racial violence has been largely overlooked. Thanks in some measure to a friend's curiosity about his own family, we have new light on our past and an opportunity for truth-telling, repentance and healing.

After his father's death, young J. Chester Johnson lived for several years with his maternal grandparents. His grandfather "Lonnie" was particularly kind to young Chester. It was known casually in his family that Lonnie belonged to the Ku Klux Klan. Chester remembers hints that his grandfather had once been involved in a "race riot." Chester eventually became a renowned poet, translator, essayist and a successful New York financial adviser. In 2008, Chester began to investigate the story of the September 1919 Elaine Massacre. His published essay in 2013 and dedicated energy is partially responsible for bringing the story to light in time for an appropriate centennial commemoration.

Racial tensions were high in 1919 as African-American solders returned from World War I expecting greater freedom and fairness as veterans. Many white Americans were determined to keep them in their place. A wave of lynchings, shootings and burnings ensued. One of these black vets, Robert Hill of Winchester, Arkansas, became a union organizer to help black and white Delta sharecroppers bargain for fair cotton prices and find relief from exploitative systems of debt.

On Tuesday, Sept. 30, 1919, about 100 persons met in the Hoop Spur Church near Elaine in Phillips County to help organize a branch of the Progressive Farmers and Household Union. Around 11 p.m. a deputy sheriff, a security agent from the MoPac Railroad, and a black trustee prisoner pulled their car within sight of the armed guards at the church. No one knows who fired first, but the MoPac agent was killed in a furious exchange of gunfire. The church was burned the following day.

A call went out, and whites from across the mid-South came to Elaine to stop the "race riot." Grandfather Lonnie, who worked for MoPac, probably responded. Arkansas' Gov. Charles Hillman Brough called for federal help, and the Department of War sent 500 troops, some armed with machine guns, with orders "to shoot to kill any negro who refused to surrender immediately." Investigative journalist Ida B. Wells wrote that hundreds of white men were "chasing down and murdering every Negro they could find, driving them from their homes and stalking them in the woods and fields as men hunt wild beasts."

Scholars debate how many were killed. The best guess I can find is between 100 and 200 African Americans died. We know that five whites were killed. Some 300 black men were imprisoned. When a lynch mob threatened to take justice into their hands, Phillips County authorities promised swift prosecution and executions. Quickly seventy-four men were convicted for non-capital crimes and 12 were convicted of murder and scheduled for prompt electrocution.

A skillful young black lawyer, Scipio Africanus Jones, implemented a complex set of tactics to free the seventy-four within five years. On behalf of those charged with murder, Jones planned a brilliant strategy based the Fourteenth Amendment right to due process of law and equal protection. He gained enough time successfully to petition the U.S. Supreme Court on behalf of six of the 12.

The NAACP asked distinguished Boston attorney Moorfield Storey to take Jones' strategy to the high court, where Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote for the 6-2 landmark Moore v. Dempsey decision that "counsel, jury and judge were swept to the fatal end by an irresistible wave of public passion." Federal law intervened in state criminal proceedings in a new way. The decision became a precedent that helped later courts extend constitutional civil liberties.

During his journey, Chester has developed a healing friendship with Sheila Walker, whose ancestors were among the victims. I will join them at the dedication and unveiling of the Elaine Massacre Memorial at 2 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 29, in front of the Phillips County Courthouse. St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, will offer a Saturday-Sunday pilgrimage to the Memphis Civil Rights Museum and the Elaine dedication. Information is available at pilgrimage/

Nearer home, the David and Barbara Pryor Center for Arkansas Oral and Visual History on the Fayetteville Square will host a symposium on the Elaine Massacre from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 19. St. Paul's will present Chester Johnson and Sheila Walker in a 7 p.m. presentation Saturday, Sept. 21.

Commentary on 09/10/2019

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