We never study this part of our history

Americans are famously unconcerned with history.   Even recent history is quickly forgotten, dismissed as “been there, done that.”   The president’s controversial acts are forgotten almost as quickly as he commits them.  All that skullduggery detailed in the Mueller Report?   Old news!   We heard about it already, the president openly and innocently admitted it, the partisan witch hunt completely and totally exonerated the poor guy!  We look forward here in America, not back, like Obama so high-mindedly did with state-sanctioned American torture that was rebranded as “enhanced interrogation” for purposes of immunizing American torturers.   “We tortured some folks,” admitted the president, citing the best of intentions with which good Americans unfortunately did these admittedly wrong things, and we moved on.   America, land of opportunity.

I heard this report, of the hundredth anniversary of a racial slaughter in rural Arkansas, one among many in our bloody history of racial violence, a racist slaughter I’d never heard of.  I’m an American who takes history seriously, and I’ve read a good bit of it over the years, but I’d never heard of this particular massacre. Oddly, like the racist bloodbath in Colfax, Louisiana on Easter Sunday eight years after the end of the Civil War, it didn’t appear in any of the books I read in school [1].   

The Elaine Massacre took place during the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan, at a time when some very fine people (including progressive president Woodrow Wilson) were recasting the history of the Confederacy’s bloody rebellion against the federal government as a glorious lost cause for the highest of ideals.   The Civil War, American history students were taught for decades, had not been fought over the constitutionally protected right of the wealthy to own slaves (as every Confederate state’s articles of secession stated) but for “States’ Rights” — local sovereignty, something everyone wants and is sympathetic to.   MAGA, baby. [2]  

I only know about the Elaine massacre because Amy Goodman reported, on October 1:

This week marks the 100th anniversary of the Elaine massacre, when white vigilantes in Arkansas massacred hundreds of African Americans in one of the deadliest incidents of racial violence in the nation’s history. The massacre began after black sharecroppers attempted to organize with the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America to demand higher pay for cotton. A new memorial to the victims of the massacre was recently unveiled in the county seat of Helena, Arkansas.


Sure, you can look it up now, in the age of instant information, and find the story documented somewhere (but only, of course, if you learn about it in the first place, somehow):

The sharecroppers who gathered at a small church in Elaine, Arkansas, in the late hours of September 30, 1919, knew the risk they were taking. Upset about unfair low wages, they enlisted the help of a prominent white attorney from Little Rock, Ulysses Bratton, to come to Elaine to press for a fairer share in the profits of their labor. Each season, landowners came around demanding obscene percentages of the profits, without ever presenting the sharecroppers detailed accounting and trapping them with supposed debts.


(you will have to overlook the unintended irony of the article’s anodyne title: The Massacre of Black Sharecroppers That Led the Supreme Court to Curb the Racial Disparities of the Justice System — yah, mon, they curbed that shit back in 1923…)

You can also learn things more troubling still, from the same article:

Despite its impact, little about the carnage in Elaine was unique during the summer of 1919. It was part of a period of vicious reprisals against African-American veterans returning home from World War I. Many whites believed that these veterans (including Robert Hill, who co-founded PFHUA) posed a threat as they claimed greater recognition for their rights at home. Even though they served in large numbers, black soldiers “realized over the course of the war and in the immediate aftermath that their achievement and their success actually provoked more rage and more vitriol than if they had utterly failed,” says Adriane Lentz-Smith, associate professor of history at Duke University and author of Freedom Struggles: African Americans and World War I.

And as to the fate of the twelve black men convicted and sentenced to death for the alleged murders of the whites who died in the pogrom (the African-American men were the only ones prosecuted in relation to the Elaine massacre in which virtually all of the victims were African-American), this interesting footnote, from the same article (which leads to the title referred to above):

In February 1923, by a 6-2 margin, the Court agreed. Citing the all-white jury, lack of opportunity to testify, confessions under torture, denial of change of venue and the pressure of the mob, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote for the majority that “if the case is that the whole proceeding is a mask – that counsel, jury and judge were swept to the fatal end by an irresistible wave of public passion,” then it was the duty of the Supreme Court to intervene as guarantor of the petitioners’ constitutional rights where the state of Arkansas had failed.

Tulsa, Oklahoma .  We’ve got a couple of years until the centennial of that massive anti-black rampage.

I think about my concern with this American denial of our history and wonder if maybe I’m just oversensitive because of my peculiar family history.   My father’s side of the family back in Belarus (then known as White Russia) was wiped out by the Nazis with no trace of what happened to them.   My mother’s side lived in a Ukrainian town where local Jews from neighboring areas were assembled in a makeshift ghetto and finally led to a ravine on the northwestern edge of town where several thousand were executed one August night by bullet to the back of the skull.   One searches the internet in vain for any listing of this massacre among the many Nazi massacres of World War Two.  Go figure.

The family of everybody slaughtered during the Elaine pogrom, the Colfax pogrom, the Tulsa pogrom, surely remembers the people they lost a few generations back, murdered by violent strangers who acted with no fear of legal repercussions.   You tend not to forget that kind of thing, if it happens to you.

Forget history at your own peril, my friends.


[1]  There was a footnote in the Constitutional law casebook I had in law school to a case called U.S. v. Cruikshank.  A single line, citing it as a precedent for a more famous case, the aptly named Slaughterhouse cases.   Cruikshank arose out of the organized slaughter of black men, women and children in a rural town in Louisiana. (you will get no sense of the horrific underlying events reading the Supreme Court’s dry, legalistic whitewash that signaled the judicial end of the Ku Klux Klan Act which became unenforceable in light of the Cruikshank decision).

Armed black Civil War veterans were defending ballot boxes in the county seat of rural Grant Parish after the 1872 election (one of the last with wide scale black voting in the former Confederacy until after passage of the Voting Rights Act almost a century later) which was angrily disputed by local whites.  Local whites (led by Cruikshank, et al) arrived in droves, an armed militia, with at least one cannon, and committed atrocities including the murder of prisoners who had surrendered.  

There was clearly no chance for a fair trial in the state court, so the families of the victims, and civil rights advocates,  sued in federal court, under the Ku Klux Klan Act, and things went no better for them there.  Cruikshank and the other killers walked, the Supreme Court found the federal charges against the local whites had been inartfully drafted.  The little remembered Cruikshank decision set an unshakeable precedent, was instrumental in instituting a century of “states’ rights”, giving local authorities the final say in how to deal with violence against its local troublemaking Negroes and those carpetbagging scoundrels from up north. Here’s the Smithsonian’s account of the Colfax Massacre. 

And racist monument makers get the last word, in 1951:



2] “Make America Great Again” was one of Ronald Reagan’s several campaign slogans during his first successful presidential run.   A young Roger Stone, who has a life-sized image of Nixon’s head tattooed on his back, was part of Reagan’s campaign and profited handsomely afterwards as a pioneering lobbyist with direct access to the highest elected officials he’d help put into office.  Stone later became one of Trump’s closest advisers and is, you might recall, awaiting trial for a string of shady dealings on the president’s behalf.  Not much has been heard from the provocative loudmouth lately, now that I think of it.   Stone’s idol Nixon, incidentally, was the first to refer to an impeachment as a “partisan witch hunt.”

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