The sharecroppers who gathered at a small church in Elaine, Arkansas, in the late hours of September 30,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 ing and trapping them with supposed debts.
Aware of the dangers — the atmosphere was tense after racially motivated violence in the area — some of the farmers were armed with rifles. At around 11 p. The shots were returned, and in the chaos, one white man was killed.
Word spread rapidly about the death. And the killing was indiscriminate—men, women and children unfortunate enough to be in the vicinity were slaughtered.
Amidst the violence, five whites died, but for those deaths, someone would have to be held able. Out of this tragedy, known as the Elaine massacre, and its subsequent prosecution, would come a Supreme Court decision that would upend years of court-sanctioned injustice against African-Americans and would secure the right of due process for defendants placed in impossible circumstances.
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Despite its impact, little about the carnage in Elaine was unique during the summer of 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. During the massacre, Arkansan Leroy Johnston, who had had spent nine months recovering in a hospital from injuries he suffered in the trenches of France — was pulled from a train shortly after returning home and was shot to death alongside his three brothers.
In places like Phillips County, where the economy directly depended on the predatory system of sharecropping, white residents were inclined to view the activities of Hill and others as the latest in a series of dangerous agitations. In the days after the bloodshed in Elaine, local media coverage continued to fan the flames daily, reporting sensational stories of an organized plot against whites. A seven-man committee formed to investigate the killings. To counter this accepted narrative, Walter White, a member of the NAACP whose appearance enabled him to blend in with white residents, snuck into Phillips County by posing as a reporter.
He pointed out that the disparity in death toll alone belied the accepted version of events. The courts were another matter altogether. Dozens of African-Americans became defendants in hastily convened murder trials that used incriminating testimony coerced through torture, and 12 men were sentenced to death. Jury deliberations lasted just moments. The verdicts were a foregone conclusion — it was clear that had they not been slated for execution by the court, they mob would have done so even sooner. No white residents were tried for any crime. The outcome, at least initially, echoed an unyielding trend demonstrated by many a mob lynching: for African-American defendants, accusation and conviction were interchangeable.
Nonetheless, the NAACP launched a series of appeals and challenges that would inch their way through Arkansas state courts and then federal courts for the next three years, an arduous series of hard-fought victories and discouraging setbacks that echoed attempts at legal redress for black citizens. In Februaryby a margin, the Court agreed. After a long history of having little recourse in courts, Moore vs.
Dempsey the defendant was the keeper of the Arkansas State Penitentiary preceded further legal gains where federal courts would weigh in on high-profile due process cases involving black defendants, including Powell vs. Alabama inwhich addressed all-white juries, and Brown vs.
White arkansans, fearful of what would happen if african-americans organized, took violent action, but it was the victims who ended up standing trial
Mississippi inwhich ruled on confessions extracted under torture. Moore vs. The ruling also carried broad-ranging implications for all citizens in terms of federal intervention in contested criminal cases.
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