From the Editors of Green Mountains Review -- Over the next ten days, Green Mountains Review Online will present in four installments J. Chester Johnson’s groundbreaking essay “Evanescence: The Elaine Race Massacre,” which probes deeply into one of America’s deadliest and least discussed race massacres – an event that also directly led to a more progressive U. S. Supreme Court judgment toward equal protection and thus helped usher in the civil rights movement. Driving Johnson’s exhaustive research is a personal connection to the massacre and its mysterious circumstances that brings to the fore those powerful emotional questions that lie always beyond the larger historical ones.
Across the sweeping canvas of American history, two markers–inherited and ineluctable–from the Elaine Race Massacre of 1919 in Phillips County, Arkansas of the Mississippi River Delta invite a degree of attention to the episode yet to be received from public consciousness. First, the sheer number of persons who died in the massacre–-more particularly, the countless African-Americans who perished-–would certainly cause this massacre to be judged one of the most deadly racial conflicts–-perhaps, the most deadly racial conflagration-–in the history of the nation. Second, the wellspring of the civil rights movement in the United States during the 1950s and 1960s drew constantly from the 1923 U. S. Supreme Court’s decision in Moore v. Dempsey that emerged out of the legal proceedings in Phillips County against African-American defendants, charged with the murders of whites allegedly committed during the massacre. The ruling in Moore v. Dempsey broke a long chain of Supreme Court decisions brutally adverse to the safety and rights of African-Americans.
Two heroes whose individual backgrounds could not have been more dissimilar share in this American saga. Most apparent, Scipio Africanus Jones, African-American lawyer, who started as a laborer in the Arkansas fields to become a 20th century Moses, climbed, through brilliance and tenacity, to forensic heights to free the black sharecroppers, unjustly found guilty of crimes in the aftermath of the massacre, and, at the same time, developed the legal strategy that, ultimately, through the intervention of the U. S. Supreme Court, altered the application of the 14th Amendment to the U. S. Constitution to protect the individual rights of and due process for American citizens. The other hero, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Boston patrician and distinguished jurist, who wrote the majority opinion for Moore v. Dempsey, not only opened the door to freedom for wrongfully convicted Arkansas sharecroppers, but also articulated a new judicial precedent and principle under which the federal government would more forcefully thereafter engage in the constitutional protection of its citizens.
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