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Tom Dillard: Consideration of segregation leads to impact of forgiveness

by Tom Dillard | July 12, 2020 at 1:00 a.m.

Almost 101 years have passed since the massacre of Black citizens near the town of Elaine in Phillips County in the fall of 1919. For years this violent episode -- perhaps involving hundreds of deaths -- received little attention, with both white and Black people preferring to avoid the pain inherent in addressing such a tragic event.

Finally, in recent years, two excellent books as well as numerous newspaper and magazine articles have been published on Elaine, allowing for an almost complete reappraisal of the event. "Damaged Heritage: The Elaine Race Massacre and a Story of Reconciliation" by J. Chester Johnson (Pegasus Books, $27.95), written by a grandson of a white mob participant, has brought a new perspective to the massacre.

Chester Johnson was not yet quite 2 when his father died in 1946, and he went to live with his maternal grandparents in Little Rock. He developed an abiding love for them, especially his grandfather, Alonzo "Lonnie" Birch.

" ... I always sat next to him or on his lap. We ate together, and I napped in his arms. I was his 24-hour-a-day project in retirement," Johnson wrote. "When I fell down, he picked me up and gently assuaged my scrapes and bruises." It was painful for Johnson to learn that his grandfather not only participated in the killings at Elaine but also later became a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

After a short time, Johnson's mother reunited Chester with his older brother and moved to Monticello, the college town and county seat of Drew County. As he grew older, Johnson noticed how "racism consumed all small towns in southeast Arkansas where I lived my young life in Monticello during the 1950s and 1960s."

Noting that everyone "monitored compliance with the racial taboos," Johnson wrote that "even at death, separation between Blacks and whites remained de rigueur in a divided cemetery."

The Johnson home in Monticello was situated near a Black neighborhood, and young Chester was soon playing with Black children in a nearby field. In looking back more than 60 years, Johnson recalled that white adults did not object to his Black playmates.

Later, as an adult, he concluded that white parents accepted this integrated play because they knew it would come to an end when the "institutional forces" of segregation took over. "The ability of these friendships to sustain themselves faced too much historical momentum and opprobrium," Johnson concluded.

Television coverage of the 1955 Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott brought the civil rights movement to young Chester's attention for the first time. This awareness grew when the integration of Little Rock's Central High School in 1957 captured headlines around the world.

Before long, Chester was listening to the resounding oratory of Martin Luther King Jr. By the time he graduated from Monticello High School and entered Harvard University in 1962, he knew things were not right.

In an attempt to "make things a little more right," in 1969 Johnson took a job as a teacher in the all-Black Drew School in Monticello. While this was a rewarding job, the voluntary presence of a young white teacher in a Black school raised the ire of local segregationists, and he avoided being physically attacked only by the interference of a white man who had been a local football star.

Johnson did not endear himself to local segregationists when he unsuccessfully ran for mayor of Monticello. After a year in the classroom, Johnson concluded that "Monticello had had enough of Chester Johnson, and I guess I had had enough of Monticello."

He moved to New York City where he still lives. In addition to a successful business career, he became a published poet and held leadership posts in the Episcopal Church.

In 2008 Johnson discovered a 1920 booklet on the killings at Elaine by Black journalist and anti-lynching crusader Ida B. Wells titled "The Arkansas Race Riot." This powerfully written account spurred Johnson to undertake an in-depth study of the Elaine atrocities, partly in an attempt to come to terms with the role his grandfather played in the event.

During the course of his work on Elaine, Johnson met Sheila L. Walker, a relative of Albert Giles, one of the 12 Black sharecroppers who had been tried by an all-white jury and sentenced to death after a hasty sham trial. Eventually, through the work of the NAACP and the brilliant defense mounted by the Black Little Rock attorney Scipio A. Jones, Giles and the other defendants were freed.

Johnson and Walker, who lived in Syracuse at the time, embarked on a journey of discovery and eventually forgiveness. Indeed, Johnson believes that Sheila Walker "stood well ahead of me in understanding why she could forgive Lonnie more than I could."

Johnson struggled not only to understand the Elaine massacre but to find a way he and other white people could "acknowledge the exceptional power and infectious impact of forgiveness" as a part of a process of reconciliation.

Johnson repeatedly blames filiopietism -- the excessive veneration of ancestors and tradition -- for much of the racism in the American South. This is a relevant concept these days as Americans debate the removal of Confederate statues from public places. I recently saw an offensive example of this excessive veneration when a friend shared a picture of a pickup with a rear-window emblem of a Confederate flag and the words "these colors don't run."

Johnson understands that no single solution will repair the divide between the races in America. He does, however, believe that the religious principle of co-inherence can provide a grounding principle for people of different races to work together.

Co-inherence stresses that an essential relationship binds all humans together. British theologian Charles Williams (1886-1945), the main proponent of this concept, believed that "no man lives to himself or indeed from himself ... We are simply, utterly dependent on others."

Johnson concludes "Damaged Heritage" with a poem he read on Sept. 29, 2019, at the dedication of the Elaine Massacre Memorial in Helena. The final stanza is especially meaningful today as we Americans grapple with our racist heritage: "So, we shall no longer wait/For more light that we may/Better see light, nor wait/For other dreams that we/May better inspire dreams."

Note: Readers have inquired why I have started capitalizing "Black" in my columns, but not "white." I too was puzzled by this development, and upon inquiry discovered that this change was recently adopted by The Associated Press, the style guide followed by this newspaper. The AP is considering whether to capitalize white.

Tom Dillard was the founding director of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies in Little Rock. He now lives in retirement in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at [email protected]


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