Unlearned Lessons: Elaine Race Massacre Reminds us of Need for Reparative Justice

The falsely accused

The falsely accused. Photo: University of Arkansas website.

[Commentary: Black History Month]

On February 19, 1923 a fateful decision by a six-member majority of the United States Supreme Court in Moore v. Dempsey ordered a new trial and release from custody for six Black men who were tried, convicted, and sentenced to death for first degree murder of a white man killed during the Elaine Race Massacre of 1919 at the end of the “Red Summer.”  

The convictions and sentences were vacated because the trials were poisoned by white prejudice and hysteria, coerced testimony from tortured Black witnesses, and an all-white judicial system that was under tremendous community pressure to produce guilty verdicts.

Most people–including people in my home state of Arkansas– do not know about Moore v. Dempsey and the Elaine Race Massacre. High school history textbooks do not mention that white vigilantes from Arkansas, Mississippi, and Tennessee slaughtered hundreds of Black men, women, and children in rural southeast Arkansas between September 30 and October 4, 1919 simply for organizing a farmers’ union.

High schools do not teach history students that no white person was prosecuted for the deaths of any of the slaughtered Black men, women, and children. High school history textbooks do not cover how the Moore defendants and six other Black men were arrested, charged, tried, convicted, and sentenced to death because one white man died when white vigilantes attacked blacks outside a black church several miles north of Elaine.  

The Moore v. Dempsey ruling goes far beyond court procedures. The Elaine Race Massacre and its Moore v. Dempsey aftermath are moral, ethical, legal, and cultural proof about the effects of white supremacy, racism, militarism, and capitalism. 

The Elaine Race Massacre and Moore v. Dempsey show how white supremacists and their political lackeys employ law, law enforcement officers, court proceedings, and judges, as weapons against people they target for disfavor. The Elaine Race Massacre and Moore v. Dempsey are reminders—provided we will learn and remember—that people targeted for that disfavor cannot count on help from “good” folks in the business, political, and religious establishment.  

The Elaine Race Massacre and Moore v. Dempsey caution people who believe in justice to not become complacent. Instead, we must constantly combat and overcome white supremacy, racism, capitalism, militarized notions of law enforcement, and domestic terrorism based on white supremacy and nationalism.  

The Elaine Race Massacre and Moore v. Dempsey remind us that oppression is interconnected (intersectionality).  Racism, sexism (including homophobia and transphobia), materialism, militarism, classism, imperialism, techno-centrism, and xenophobia are interconnected features of the white religious nationalism that has long masqueraded as “American exceptionalism.”

The Elaine Race Massacre and Moore v. Dempsey teach that people who believe in justice must not become worn down by these and other realities. Instead, we must find the moral, ethical, physical, spiritual, and emotional resources needed to sustain one another, encourage one another, and overcome enemies to justice, including enemies to reparations.

Moreover, the Elaine Race Massacre and Moore v. Dempsey show that oppressed people and our liberation-minded allies must never allow this society to forget the wrongs oppressed people have suffered, the unrepented harms and losses oppressed people yet suffer, and how society tries to deny, discount, and distract attention from the moral, legal, financial, social, and other debt owed to descendants of systemic oppression.  

Reparations activists are hosting an upcoming February 19 online commemoration of the Moore v. Dempsey decision to confront more than a century of willful denial by local, state, and national civic, religious, business, and education leaders about the intersectionality of white supremacy, capitalism, religious nationalism, and domestic terrorism by vigilante groups and state-sponsored and sanctioned terrorists costumed as “law enforcement officers.”  

We also recognize that the Elaine Race Massacre and the Moore v. Dempsey case are related to recent events. 

The killings of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arberry, George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, Elijah McClain, Daniel Prude, the maiming of Jacob Blake, the recent use of mace on a nine- year- old Black girl by Rochester, New York police officers, and recent statements by two white Texas Baptist pastors who slurred Vice President Kamala Harris by calling her “Jezebel,” are recent and current examples of the enduring debt America cannot avoid and must repay.  

As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said many times, the issue of racial inequality in America “is so tenacious because, despite its virtues and attributes, America is deeply racist, and its democracy is flawed both economically and socially.”  

King added that “too many Americans believe justice will unfold painlessly…” People who quote King seldom, if ever, mention his observation that “When millions of people have been cheated for centuries, restitution is a costly process…Justice so long deferred has accumulated interest and its cost for this society will be substantial in financial as well as human terms.”  

Wendell Griffen is an Arkansas trial judge, pastor of New Millennium Church in Little Rock, Arkansas, a consultant in cultural competency and inclusion, and a trustee of the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference.

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