Elaine Race Riot

From Academic Kids

The Elaine Race Riot was a deadly 1919 race riot in the town of Elaine in Phillips County, Arkansas which gained national attention and spurred a major U.S. Supreme Court ruling.

Missing image
Exaggerated 1919 Newspaper Headline

The violence

Black tenant farmers (sharecroppers) were holding a union meeting at the Hoop Spur Church in Elaine, Arkansas before dawn on October 1, 1919. Many of the African-American sharecroppers had not been paid fair shares for the products they grew and wanted to join the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America and were also discussing filing a class action lawsuit against their landlords. Union members advocating for the union brought armed guards to protect the meeting. A white deputy sheriff and a railroad worker, both armed, arrived at the meeting place and a fight broke out. In the ensuing gunfire the deputy sheriff was wounded and the railroad worker was killed.

The violence expanded beyond the meeting place and fighting in the area lasted for two days. Word traveled to neighboring States through hyperventilated newspaper reports that an 'insurrection' was occurring, which brought additional armed men into the county from outside to support the white citizens.

Arkansas Governor Charles Hillman Brough received a request for help from area whites citing a 'negro uprising'. Brough contacted the War Department and requested federal troops which were granted. After considerable delay, approximately 600 U.S. troops arrived and found the town in chaos. The troops made their way to the area of the Hoop Spur Church where they had an exchange of gunfire with black farmers in the woods. Over the next few days the troops disarmed both parties and arrested several hundred black residents.

During this time several African-American and white citizens were killed and more wounded. At least two and possibly many more were killed by federal troops. The exact numbers of dead amongst the African-Americans is unknown but estimates range from as low as 25 to as high as 800.

The NAACP's investigation

The NAACP sent its assistant secretary, Walter F. White, to investigate the violence in October, 1919. White, who was blonde and blue-eyed and able to pass for white, was granted credentials from the Chicago Daily News, which enabled him to obtain an interview with Governor Brough, who in turn gave him a letter of recommendation and his autographed photograph.

White was only in Phillips County for a brief time before his identity was discovered; he took the first train back to Little Rock. The conductor told him that he was leaving "just when the fun is going to start", because they had found out that there was a "damned yellow nigger passing for white and the boys are going to get him". Asked what they would do to him, the conductor told White that "when they get through with him he won't pass for white no more!"

White published his findings in the Daily News, the Chicago Defender and The Nation, as well as the NAACP's own magazine Crisis. Governor Brough asked the United States Postal Service to prohibit the mailing of the Chicago Defender and Crisis while others attempted to enjoin distribution of the Defender at the local level.

The trials

In October and November of 1919, a grand jury, which included no African-Americans, handed down indictments against 122 blacks. These charges included 73 charges of murder and charges of conspiracy and insurrection.

Those blacks willing to testify against others and who agreed to work on whatever terms their landlords set for them were let go; those who had been labeled ringleaders or who were judged unreliable were indicted. According to the affidavits later supplied by the defendants, many of the prisoners had been beaten, whipped or tortured by electric shocks to extract testimony or confessions and threatened with death if they later recanted their testimony.

The trials were held only a month after the events, in a courthouse in Elaine, with mobs or armed whites milling around the courthouse. The lawyers for the defense did not subpoena witnesses for the defense and did not allow their clients to testify. Twelve of the defendants were convicted of murder and sentenced to death in the electric chair. Their trials lasted less than an hour in many cases; the juries took less than ten minutes to deliberate before pronouncing them guilty and sentencing them to death. The Arkansas Gazette applauded the trials as the triumph of the rule of law, as none of the defendants had been lynched.

Thirty-six other defendants chose to plead guilty to second-degree murder rather than face trial. Sixty-seven other defendants were convicted and sentenced to various terms of imprisonment.

The appeals

The NAACP also took on the task of organizing the defendants' appeal. The NAACP for a time attempted to conceal its role in the appeals, given the hostile reception its report on the violence and the trials had received. Once it undertook to organize the defense it went to work vigorously, raising more than $50,000 and hiring Scipio Africanus Jones, an African-American attorney from Arkansas, and Colonel George W. Murphy, a Confederate veteran, former Attorney-General for the State of Arkansas and unsuccessful candidate for Governor on the Progressive Party ticket.

The defendants' lawyers were able to obtain reversal of the verdicts by the Arkansas Supreme Court in six of the twelve cases in which death sentences had been handed down on the ground that the jury had failed to specify whether the defendants were guilty of murder in the first or second degree; those cases were accordingly sent back for retrial. The Arkansas Supreme Court upheld the death sentences of the six other defendants, rejecting the challenge to the all-white jury as untimely and finding that the mob atmosphere and use of coerced testimony did not deny the defendants the due process of law to which they were entitled. Those defendants unsuccessfully petitioned the United States Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari from the Arkansas Supreme Court's decision.

The defendants next petitioned for a writ of habeas corpus, alleging that the proceedings that took place in the Arkansas state court, while ostensibly complying with the requirements of a trial, were in fact only a form, and that the accused were convicted under the pressure of the mob with blatant disregard for their constitutional rights. They had originally intended to file their petition in federal court, but the only sitting judge was assigned to other judicial duties in Minnesota at the time and would not return to Arkansas until after the defendants' scheduled execution date. Judge John Ellis Martineau of the state chancery court issued the writ, which, although later overturned by the state Supreme Court, postponed the execution date long enough to permit the defendants to seek habeas corpus relief in federal court.

The state of Arkansas took a narrowly legalistic position, based on the United States Supreme Court's earlier decision in Frank v. Mangum, in which it did not dispute the defendants' evidence of torture used to obtain confessions or mob intimidation, but simply argued that, even if true, this did not amount to a denial of due process. The district court agreed, denying the writ, but also found that there was probable cause for an appeal, allowing the defendants to take their case to the Supreme Court.

The United States Supreme Court vacated six of these convictions in Moore v. Dempsey Template:Ussc on the ground that the mob-dominated atmosphere of the trial and the use of testimony coerced by torture denied the defendants the due process required by the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The other six men went back to trial and received sentences of 12 years but received an executive pardon from the Governor of Arkansas and were released. The NAACP also obtained the release of many of the other defendants who had pleaded guilty or been convicted of lesser offenses.

The aftermath

The Supreme Court's decision opened up an era in which the Supreme Court gave closer scrutiny to the criminal justice given to black defendants in the segregated South, at least in well-publicized cases, such as that of the Scottsboro boys a decade later. The victory also gave the NAACP greater credibility as the champion of African-Americans' rights and helped propel the career of Walter F. White, who later became executive secretary of the NAACP.

In recent years, researchers have begun to investigate the riot in Elaine as well as the similar Tulsa Race Riot which occurred in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921. In early 2000 a conference on the Elaine Riot was held in Helena, Arkansas at the Delta Cultural Center.

See also

Further reading


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