You may not have heard or read about “the Red Summer of 1919” and the Elaine Race Massacre. Those subjects have not been taught in American history classes. During that summer, black men, women and children throughout the United States were murdered by white mobs determined to terrorize them into peonage and deny their humanity.
The Red Summer concluded in my home state of Arkansas near the small, rural community of Elaine, where hundreds of black men, women and children were massacred by a white mob and federal troops over the course of several days beginning October 1, 1919.
No white person was arrested for or charged with committing any of the murders or for planning the massacre or participating in it. Meanwhile, an all-white jury tried and convicted black men for the murder of two white men. The condemned men escaped death only through tireless and courageous efforts led by Scipio Africanus Jones, a black lawyer whose mother had been a slave. (To learn more, read On the Laps of Gods: The Red Summer of 1919 and the Struggle for Justice That Remade a Nation by Robert Whitaker.)
Now, to promote tourism and line their pockets, descendants of the merchants, plantation owners and political elite in Helena, Arkansas, who plotted, organized, carried out, profited from and covered up the worst massacre of black people in Arkansas history, plan to “dedicate” what they call a “memorial” to the hundreds of black men, women and children massacred 100 years ago. The “dedication” ceremony is set for September 29 in Helena, 25 miles from Elaine.
Their “memorial” will stand on ground that includes a monument to several Confederate soldiers.
Their “memorial” is near the Phillips County Courthouse where black men tortured into making false confessions were unjustly tried and convicted of murder by a jury that included white men who were part of the posse that committed the massacre.
Their “memorial” in Helena is near the county jail where black men were beaten and electrocuted to obtain the false confessions.
Their “memorial” is where white plantation owners, merchants, bankers and civic leaders – including religious leaders – whitewashed the massacre and have spent the past century denying it and intimidating people who inquired about it.
Elaine is where the massacre of hundreds of black men, women and children happened and atrocities were committed in the name of white supremacy. Placing a “memorial” in Helena is as wrong as placing a “memorial” to victims of the recent massacre in El Paso in Allen, Texas, the home of the man who planned and committed that massacre.
“Over the past century, civic leaders in communities across the United States refused to teach students about the Red Summer of 1919.”
Elaine is near the former community of Hoop Spur, where black men, women and children attending a meeting at church the night of September 30, 1919, to plan their demand for fair pay for their work were attacked by white men who shot bullets into the church. White men later burned the church.
The Elaine Race Massacre happened after white men from Helena put out a lie that the black people meeting at that church were planning an insurrection to murder white people.
A century later, white people who claim to be “progressive” intend to “dedicate” a “memorial” to the Elaine victims in the very place where the massacre was organized and the lie to cover it up was published.
When I recently expressed outrage about the planned “memorial,” a white religious leader from Little Rock responded in an email message that “Helena was selected as the site because it’s on more of a main route for travelers.” According to that religious leader, the “memorial” was planned and financed by descendants of people who profited from the Elaine Massacre in order to profit from tourism in the “hope that [Helena] will join sites along the Civil Rights route for visitors to see and learn from.”
I’m not making this up.
In 2019, poor black people in the rural community of Elaine are being treated by the white power structure of Helena and its sycophants the same way that 1 Kings 21 reports how Naboth was treated by King Ahab and Queen Jezebel of Israel. After Naboth refused to sell his ancestral land in Jezreel to Ahab, Queen Jezebel set in motion and carried out a scheme to take the land by arranging the state-sanctioned execution of Naboth.
As South African theologian Allan Boesak observed in his 2015 book, Kairos, Crisis, and Global Apartheid: The Challenge to Prophetic Resistance, “the time for pious words is over” about white supremacy and the related wickedness of coldhearted self-interest in the racist, vicious and deceitful results of that rhetoric. The time for “cheap grace” talk and self-serving overtures about racial reconciliation is over.
What words are needed when powerful people misuse power to benefit from past wrongs and heap additional injuries on oppressed people? How do we speak of such things?
Let’s follow Jesus. Jesus denounced as “hypocrites” the pietists of his time who “neglected … justice and mercy and faith.” Jesus denounced them as “blind guides” who “strain out a gnat but swallow a camel” (Matthew 23:23-24).
Jesus denounced as “hypocrites” religious people he likened to “whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and all kinds of filth” who “on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness” (Matthew 23:27-28).
“The time for ‘cheap grace’ talk and self-serving overtures about racial reconciliation is over.”
Jesus did not use pious words, but angry words, to describe “hypocrites” who “build the tombs of the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous, and you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ Thus you testify against yourselves that you are descendants of those who murdered the prophets.” Jesus angrily called them “snakes” and “brood of vipers” (Matthew 23:29-31).
Today, our angry words rise from a sense of lamentation, mourning and woe concerning what Ezekiel 2 describes as ancestral wickedness. For successive generations over the past century, civic leaders in communities across the United States refused to teach students about the Red Summer of 1919, including the Elaine Race Massacre and subsequent terrorism that resulted in theft of land, livestock and farm implements owned by black people in south Phillips County, Arkansas.
For a century, governors, education commissioners, school boards, principals and teachers refused to teach students about it. And pastors and other religious educators refused to remember the Red Summer of 1919 and the Elaine Race Massacre.
In his new book, The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism, Jemar Tisby devoted a single paragraph at the bottom of page 118 to the Red Summer of 1919. According to the liner notes, Tisby “is a black Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Mississippi whose primary focus includes race, religion and social movements in the twentieth century.” Yet Tisby, who has family connections in Helena, strangely did not mention the Elaine Race Massacre of 1919 – the worst massacre of black people in Arkansas history – in that one paragraph about the Red Summer.
We are witnesses as descendants of what Ezekiel 2 called a “rebellious house” – including some religious leaders – are about to “dedicate” a well-financed “memorial” to the Elaine massacred in Helena – 25 miles away from Elaine – on ground where a monument to Confederate soldiers stands. We are witnesses to hypocrisy.
What are our words?
It’s time to denounce and condemn the hypocrisy of white supremacy costumed in pious assemblies, ceremonies and speeches sacralized by clerics and “gospel choirs.”
Allan Boesak is right. The time for pious words is over.