Silence filled the white churches of Elaine, Arkansas, on the last Sunday of September. It seems the white folks left town, or most of them did. Five pickup trucks full of white men drove slowly past the former elementary school that now houses a community center.
Inside, nearly 200 black people, many of them descendants of the 1919 Elaine Race Massacre, along with a few white allies, gathered to commemorate the centennial anniversary of that slaughter. We sang. We worshipped. We wept. We also raged against the injustices of white supremacy. We faced history. And we talked about what real reconciliation might look like for a community traumatized for generations by racism of every form imaginable, and then some.
The lone guard hired by the Elaine Legacy Center for the occasion noted the pickups creeping down the road, slowing even more as they passed the building.
Had he been 25 miles away in Helena, where a hefty granite and marble “memorial” to the victims of the 1919 massacre was at that very moment being “dedicated” by a group that calls itself the Elaine Massacre Memorial Committee, the guard would have found himself less isolated. There, uniformed police guarded streets closed off for the occasion, guiding the several dozen attendees – more of them white than black – to the event.
“The fervent struggle for justice continues in Elaine, often against formidable obstacles.”
Had he managed to get close enough to the carefully staged ceremony, he would have heard U.S. District Court Judge Brian Miller, himself a descendant of four men killed in the massacre a century ago, tell the small crowd, “What this monument says to us is that we can start looking at our background, looking at our past realistically, look at it and hopefully put a lot of our anger, a lot of our distrust, a lot of our nasty emotions to bed.”
But this guard was in Elaine, not Helena. In Elaine, few people sincerely believe the 1919 massacre, with the blunt and insidious trauma it created, is ready to be “put to bed.”
A century ago, prowling carloads of white men bespoke danger, too. On Sept. 30, 1919, in a church near Elaine, black farmers had gathered as members of the Progressive Farmers and Household Union. Knowing that their determination to secure a fair price for their cotton enraged white planters in the region, some of the men had armed themselves. Deep into the night, a car with armed white men pulled up. When one shot into the packed church, black men fired back, killing a white railroad agent. Thus began the Elaine Race Massacre.
One doubts that the whites who split town on Sunday, Sept. 29, realize the eerily mimetic nature of their departure. In 1919, as white mobs and federal troops descended on southern Phillips County, cutting telephone lines and slaughtering black women, men and children indiscriminately, troops also escorted the county’s white women and children by the trainload into Helena for protection.
Hundreds of black people lay dead. Scores more found themselves hauled into the county seat of Helena where they faced torture and imprisonment. Newspapers declared an insurrection. Indictments rained down, charging 12 black men with murdering three whites, two of whom were almost certainly killed by “friendly fire” in the frenzy. Convictions and death sentences followed, until the cases wound their way to the Supreme Court of the United States.
Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes spoke plainly: “If the whole case is a mask – that counsel, jury and judge were swept to the fatal end by an irresistible tide of public passion – and the state courts refuse to correct the wrong, then nothing can prevent this court from securing to the petitioners their constitutional rights.” That is, a trial conducted under the influence of a lynch mob cannot be deemed a fair trial.
Nor can “reconciliation” conducted in an atmosphere of denial and deception hold fast. The mask will fall off sooner than not. When it does, the unhealed wounds below will appear, for the world to see.
“Like domestic violence, white supremacist terrorism depends on privacy, cloaking, masking – hooding, if you will.”
Nearly 35 years later in neighboring Mississippi, Mamie Till-Mobley explained why she had insisted on an open-casket funeral for her 14-year-old son, Emmett Till, who had been lynched after being accused of offending a white woman in her family’s grocery store. “I wanted the world to see what they did to my baby,” she said, over protestations that the youth’s bashed-in head and gouged-out eye would shock or offend those who came to pay their respects. “Let the people see what they did to my boy.”
Notably, last year in Glendale, Mississippi, white supremacist domestic terrorists pumped bullets through a memorial sign to Emmett Till. Similarly, white supremacists axed down a memorial willow tree that had been planted in Elaine earlier this year in commemoration of those killed in 1919.
As any survivor of domestic violence can tell you, when an abuser goes for your belongings or those of your loved ones, you can bet you – your body, your person – are next. First comes terror by proxy or symbol. Like domestic violence, white supremacist terrorism depends on privacy, cloaking, masking – hooding, if you will.
An open gaze on Elaine, Arkansas, 2019 reveals this: Elaine remains a place of hostile segregation, economic inequality, shuttered schools and businesses. In Elaine, many black people, descendants of the 1919 massacre, still feel unsafe discussing the horrors of a century ago. Many seethe over the theft of their families’ land in the wake of the massacre, some of it still owned by descendants of the mob of a century ago. This is not a site of settled reconciliation.
An open gaze on Elaine, Arkansas, 2019 also reveals this: Elaine remains a place of resistance to oppression. As the sharecroppers of 1919 gathered to demand a fair price for their cotton, so too did their descendants gather for the Samuel Dewitt Proctor Conference’s Truth-Telling Commission in February 2018, bringing their testimonies together with those of distinguished historians and social justice advocates from throughout the U.S. to demand “truth and reconciliation.”
Elaine residents are collaborating with a group of activist artists in the Remember 2019 project to “call forth” knowledge and healing through community-engaged theater, story-sharing and grassroots cultural empowerment. Religious and secular, the fervent struggle for justice continues in Elaine, often against formidable obstacles.
The premature erection of a monument to reconciliation in nearby Helena seeks to mask, even entomb, living pain and turmoil. That must not happen. Open the casket. Let the people see.
Indeed, this leads to the crucial core of the matter. After the casket is opened and the century-old corpse has been viewed, what then? Do we bury our shame, guilt, rage and sense of injury in polite ceremonies of “racial reconciliation” that leave unjust injuries unhealed, stolen land unreturned, age-old wrongs unconfessed and present vestiges of the segregation that defined Phillips County in 1919 costumed by a pricey slab of marble and granite?
Let us ask the ultimate question: Do we have the moral courage and tenacity to live and act as if we believe restitution and reparation are not merely possible, but necessary for racial justice to become reality?
Faith in racial justice, like faith in other matters, is ultimately a choice, a moral decision. We must choose to believe that the power of love, justice and truth is stronger than the power of death, hate, oppression and evil. And we must fight like hell, collectively, to bring these beliefs into manifest reality.
Standing with the people of Elaine, we choose to believe in the power of love, life, justice and truth. These forces enable people to endure, confront, suffer and triumph over the power of evil, hate, oppression and death. We believe that reparations are not only possible for Elaine, but that reparations are inevitable when the full scope and truth of the massacre receive a full reckoning.
We will not be afraid or lose hope no matter how many pickup trucks of would-be domestic terrorists circle our gatherings. We will not be afraid or lose hope or stop working for racial justice – meaning restitution and reparations – no matter how white supremacists and their quieter sympathizers sanitize bigotry, hypocrisy and addiction to greed with their hollow gestures.
Stop the pretense. Open the casket. Let the people see the truth.
Previous commentary on this topic:
Wendell Griffen and Lauri Umansky | Why a monument marking the 100-year anniversary of a race massacre injures rather than heals