It was yesterday, just yesterday, I read about the events that occurred there over 100 years ago. I attended respectable public schools, I went to two well-funded undergraduate universities, and I took courses in American history. I come from a blue-collar family with a deep devotion to unions and labor, I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, land of the Wobblies, and was informally schooled in union history. I’ve long known who Joe Hill was. But Elaine, Arkansas? What was that about?
Well, as I learned only on 15 November 2021, just by chance, that in 1919 a group of black farmers, sharecroppers, met in a church to organize, form a union, and get better prices for their crops and hard work. Since this was intolerable to the wealthy white landowners who got rich off their labor, and since it was easy to inflame the poor whites in the region against their black neighbors, what followed was four days of slaughter.
When white leaders heard, they reacted with violence. Newspapers reported that white mobs, over four days, chased Black men, women and children, slaughtering them in Elaine and across the green farms and swamps of Phillips County.
All the Black farmers wanted were fair prices, but “that’s like the revolution has occurred because that threatens to shift the entire power structure of the South in the favor of Black farmers,” said Dr. Paul Ortiz, a history professor and director of the University of Florida’s Samuel Proctor Oral History Program.
Historians say the massacre claimed five white lives and more than 200 Black lives, though the true number of Black deaths is unknown and some estimates put it much higher.
What? Furthermore, this was one incident in many which occurred over Red Summer, which I’d also never heard about. There were riots all across the Midwest and South, from Chicago, IL down to Port Arthur, TX. White people were rampaging. And I knew nothing about it.
Yesterday was humbling. I had no idea how ignorant I was. Sure, I’d heard of the Tulsa Massacre in 1921, but did not realize it was part of a vast evil wave of vicious, blatant racism.
But how? How could such horrific events by quietly buried?
White newspapers filled their front pages with sensational headlines about a Black uprising, ignoring the economic inequality at the core of the conflict.
As the U.S. has reckoned with its racist past, the 1919 Elaine Massacre — one of the deadliest acts of violence against Black people in American history — has drawn new attention, especially in the years surrounding its 100th anniversary. That year, hundreds of Black people were killed in at least 25 cities across the country, a violent siege today called “Red Summer.”
The cover-up orchestrated by Elaine’s wealthy white landowners and the government, aided by the white-centric reporting of white-owned newspapers, led to a scarcity of information about the massacre.
Headlines such as “VICIOUS BLACKS WERE PLANNING GREAT UPRISING” and “NEGROES HAVE BEEN AROUSED BY PROPAGANDA” were atop the front pages of the Arkansas Gazette on Oct. 3, 1919, and Oct. 4, 1919, respectively.
“NEGROES HAD PLOT TO RISE AGAINST WHITES, CHARGED,” read the front page of the Arkansas Democrat on the third day of the massacre.
Surely, the impartial American justice system would levy righteous retribution on the mob? Nope.
Despite the work of the Black press, white newspapers continued to perpetuate their false story. After hundreds of Black people were massacred, no white people were tried in their deaths.
Black people were rounded up, jailed in Helena and tortured until they confessed a role in the deaths of the five white people — part of a legal cover-up concocted by a committee of wealthy white farmers and businessmen appointed by the governor.
In the end, estimates range between 65-75 Black men were sentenced to long-term prison sentences and 12 were sentenced to death. A years-long legal battle fought by the NAACP resulted in two cases, one of which went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court (Moore v. Dempsey) while the other went to the Arkansas Supreme Court. The high courts agreed that the men’s due-process rights had been violated, and none of the 12 were executed.
Now I think of all the black people murdered in recent history, and it’s clear — this is the arc of our history. George Floyd could be murdered by an armed white thug on the most trivial of pretexts, and the press tells us that Floyd was “no angel”. Trayvon Martin can walk out to buy Skittles and come home to be shot to death by a vigilante…and we hear that he was “no angel”, either, and his murderer is acquitted. It’s all the same story, told over and over again, and echoed and reinforced by our incompetent, unprincipled media.
And so it goes.
Today, of course, the Republican party is animated by a fanatical desire to paper over our shame, to keep our kids ignorant of the systematic injustices perpetrated in this country by whiteness and white people for centuries. I also am the beneficiary of the historical crimes that bled black and brown people to give me some relative prosperity, but I have no desire to close my eyes to it — I want to know. It’s the only way we can end this cycle of oppression. All these complaints about CRT are nothing but attempts to blind us to the truth, and keep the hate going.
God damn it, I’m 64 years old and the media has succeeded in keeping me in the dark almost my entire life.