J. Chester Johnson
A Selection of “Poems From The Elaine Race Massacre”
Highlights of the Massacre and Aftermath:
During the Red Summer of 1919 when racial conflict between black and white Americans flared throughout the country, the Elaine Race Massacre in Phillips County, Arkansas, along the Mississippi River Delta, stands out as possibly the most brutal and murderous conflagration. From Tuesday, September 30th, 1919 to the following weekend, more than a hundred and possibly hundreds of African-American sharecroppers and family members perished. Five whites also died, although two may have been killed by friendly fire. Whites feared a black insurrection where blacks outnumbered whites by multiples, but also feared the local black sharecroppers’ desire to unionize for improving economic negotiating power; these two factors contributed to the whites’ extensive aggression against the blacks. The largest number of deaths of African-Americans were caused by white federal troops with machine guns, brought into Phillips County allegedly to stop the black revolt. No investigation ever found that local African-Americans planned or executed an insurrection.
Litigation that evolved out of unfair and accelerated trials of black sharecroppers in Phillips County at the end of the Massacre was brought to the U. S. Supreme Court in the case of Moore v. Dempsey. A brilliant and effective African-American lawyer from Little Rock, Arkansas, Scipio Africanus Jones, represented six of the sharecroppers found guilty of murder. In a landmark decision, the U. S. Supreme Court found in 1923 on behalf of the sharecroppers in an opinion written by Associate Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes; for the first time, invoking due process and equal justice under the law, as promulgated by the 14th Amendment, the federal courts could intercede thereafter in unfair trials, paving the way for more progressive decisions, such as Brown v. Board of Education, and a more activist federal court.
The Poet’s Overview:
This segment and sequence of individual pieces, which are part of Poems From The Elaine Race Massacre, represent authentic episodes based on historical accounts (i) at the cessation of attacks against African-Americans by white posses, white vigilantes, and white federal troops, (ii) as the Arkansas Governor, together with local white planters and plutocrats, implemented a strategy to prove a false, white narrative that the Massacre had been caused by a black insurrection, and (iii) successful litigation in 1923 on behalf of the sharecroppers in Moore v. Dempsey, which established a new and more progressive standard for equal justice under the law.
This is a set of sequential pieces that are part of Poems From The Elaine Race Massacre.
Friday, October 3, 1919: Before Departing Phillips County, Governor Charles Hillman Brough Appoints A Local Committee Of Seven Leading White Men To Decide On The Blacks To Be Prosecuted; In Order To Justify Charges and Trials Against Black Sharecroppers, The Committee Fabricates An Untrue “White” Narrative.
We cannot be touched; fingers do
Not connect so far to control places
We go and choices we can make
Freely without so much as a whisper
Or tilt to deny routes we choose;
It’s a trick getting here without
Trickery. Some tried, even smart
Interlopers who last about as long
As it takes to decide to crush them.
It all began innocent enough, I
Guess, with wealth and old people
Teaching left from right and right
From everything else, old after
Young until we were old all of
The time; folks came to us for odd
And same alike, as we led them
Our way, until our way had only
One way, found time and again.
We serve each other too well;
We know where dark skies are
Buried beneath the corncrib or
Underneath the azalea bush,
Enough to be led to ruination
For us all if we don’t concentrate
This secrecy and harsh fortune
Into pacts for the status quo that
Wrests a future from the future.
Blacks mean nothing and nearly
Everything to us: a glad voice
To make us feel better than we
Even should; a stronger hand
To feed the riches we squander
Under every moonlight. Yet,
They’re mirrors of what we will
Do, of what we’ve done, of harm
So easily stirred by daily practice.
Late August, 1921: In The Little Rock Law Office Of Edgar McHaney, Co-Counsel With Scipio Jones For The Convicted Sharecroppers, Henry F. Smiddy, Former Security Official With The Missouri Pacific Railroad, And His Old Boss At The Job, T. K. Jones, Recant Their Previous Versions And Confirm The “Black” Narrative For The Elaine Race Massacre. Encouraged By Conscience, The Recantations In The Form Of Affidavits By Smiddy And T. K. Jones Prove Powerful Additions To The Brief, Prepared By Scipio Jones And Submitted To The U. S. Supreme Court In Support Of The Petitioners For Moore v. Dempsey.
Someone like me, a Smiddy, ferments
On the proverbial vine – the lies’
Grossing disease cankered against
The times I’ve elongated and thickened
With more and worse. One cannot endure
The first to last or stomach the sequence
That will not let go: what’s redemption
With my calculations and fever hanging
Pitilessly until the air loses value, grip?
I fired into the face of a child;
I whipped the hides until they leaked
My sin, and all motiveless, motionless
For days on end, and we lie to prove
We can or that we don’t care with
Every ounce of deceit coming our way
For casual ruse that could not
Key to reason. Names? Names to
Haunt the ones we name ‘no one’.
Now, to come clean, broken down
Into individual pieces of truth, of
Connection, not derangement – to be
As one in measure and grace – one
Intact, not ruffling nor frayed;
But to be as one is to be less
Than one, apart, mocked and
Riddled, from the warmth of friends,
But upright in the heart blown open.
Monday Evening, January 8, 1923: At His Home, Oliver Wendell Holmes Broods Over The Next Day When He And The Other U. S. Supreme Court Justices Hear Oral Arguments For Moore v. Dempsey. Holmes Had Dissented In The Important Leo Franks Case, But Moore v. Dempsey Gives Him Another Opportunity To Convince The Court To Take A More Interventionist Approach In Unfair Trials With Obvious 14th Amendment Violations.
The nation cannot survive for long
With remnants of slavery tearing
Us into a people called to suicide;
Race wars have no place here and
Tomorrow – in the nearby, will
Genocide stick its dirty head into
Living rooms? How extreme we walk
In danger, as I cannot talk of my fear,
But I can paint landscapes with law,
And law can say something that can’t
Otherwise be said. To stop the
Rosewoods and Elaines, do we rise
To remove white immunity daring
To think all is well when blacks are
Burned or buried among ropes? For
Who can deny the ruination of a
Nation? Those who shall deny it all
Surely exhibit everything to hide.
Don’t give us your tired and poor –
Blacks, Jews, immigrants – we’ll
Cook them up in our cauldron of
More hate than you could imagine;
We admit it: a country uncivilized
Promoting itself civil – hypocrisy
Or freedom for the ages – we can
Not last as we are, a contradiction
To the words we claim declaim us.
Monday, February 19, 1923: The U. S. Supreme Court Releases Its Decision On Moore v. Dempsey In Favor Of The Convicted Sharecroppers. The Federal Government Would Consequentially, In The Future, Take A More Activist Approach Toward The Protection Of 14th Amendment Rights And Due Process For Its Citizens. In Drafting The Opinion, Holmes Relies On The Brief Submitted To The Court By Scipio Jones.
Words are neutral – they belong to
No one; it’s just the way we borrow
Them and use them for collection
And put them away again. We build
With words or worse, invade, but
Scipio Jones, a man who persuades
Without threat, who gives us a path,
Heading me home where I can reside
Doubtless, declaratives without recourse.
How long do we need to know
We were wrong before we make
It right? Equal protection to be
Unshadowed – what else could it mean?
Delay and defer until time’s a pace
Etched with loss, with symbols
Stale and stained with much undone?
One plea, or hundreds more, closed
For want of a place to begin true?
I’m tired of waiting, and Scipio is
Tired of writing. The object, the
Predicate have been explained:
Removing holes, sizing advent,
Scorching brush over the plains
Along the Delta, through chambers
Of law, through chambers of hidden
Texts – not evading the moment.
Scipio, I hear the wisdom; let it reign.
J. Chester Johnson is a poet, essayist, and translator. Recent books are St. Paul’s Chapel & Selected Shorter Poems (2010), Now And Then: Selected Longer Poems (2017), and Auden, the Psalms, and Me (2017), the story of the retranslation of the psalms in the Book of Common Prayer for which W. H. Auden (1968-1971) and Johnson (1971-1979) served as the poets on the drafting committee; published in 1979, this version of the psalms has become a standard. In May, 2020, Damaged Heritage: The Elaine Race Massacre and A Story of Reconciliation was published by Pegasus Books to be distributed by Simon & Schuster. His poem about the iconic St. Paul’s Chapel, relief center for the recovery workers at Ground Zero in New York City, has been the Chapel’s memento card since soon after the 9/11 terrorists’ attacks (1.5 million cards distributed); American Book Review has said of the poem: “Johnson’s ‘St. Paul’s Chapel’ is one of the most widely distributed, lauded, and translated poems of the current century.” One of fifteen writers selected to be showcased for the inaugural Harvard Alumni Authors’ Book Fair, he was educated at Harvard College and the University of Arkansas (Distinguished Alumnus Award, 2010).