On the Laps of Gods: The Red Summer of 1919 and the Struggle for Justice That Remade a Nation

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9780307339829: On the Laps of Gods: The Red Summer of 1919 and the Struggle for Justice That Remade a Nation

They shot them down like rabbits . . .

September 30, 1919. The United States teetered on the edge of a racial civil war. During the previous three months, racial fighting had erupted in twenty-five cities. And deep in the Arkansas Delta, black sharecroppers were meeting in a humble wooden church, forming a union and making plans to sue their white landowners, who for years had cheated them out of their fair share of the cotton crop. A car pulled up outside the church . . .
What happened next has long been shrouded in controversy.

In this heartbreaking but ultimately triumphant story of courage and will, journalist Robert Whitaker carefully documents—and exposes—one of the worst racial massacres in American history. Over the course of several days, posses and federal troops gunned down more than one hundred men, women, and children.

But that is just the beginning of this astonishing story. White authorities also arrested more than three hundred black farmers, and in trials that lasted only a few hours, all-white juries sentenced twelve of the union leaders to die in the electric chair. One of the juries returned a death verdict after two minutes of deliberation.

All hope seemed lost, and then an extraordinary lawyer from Little Rock stepped forward: Scipio Africanus Jones. Jones, who’d been born a slave, joined forces with the NAACP to mount an appeal in which he argued that his clients’ constitutional rights to a fair trial had been violated. Never before had the U.S. Supreme Court set aside a criminal verdict in a state court because the proceedings had been unfair, so the state of Arkansas, confident of victory, had a carpenter build coffins for the men.

We all know the names of the many legendary heroes that emerged from the civil rights movement: Thurgood Marshall, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King Jr. among them. Whitaker’s important book commemorates a legal struggle, Moore v. Dempsey, that paved the way for that later remaking of our country, and tells too of a man, Scipio Africanus Jones, whose name surely deserves to be known by all Americans.

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About the Author:

ROBERT WHITAKER is the award-winning author of The Mapmaker’s Wife and Mad in America. His manuscript of On the Laps of Gods won the prestigious J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter 1

A Union in Hoop Spur

HOOP SPUR HAS LONG since disappeared from the maps of Phillips County, Arkansas, and even in 1919, when it could be found on such a map, it consisted of little more than a railroad switching station and a small store. But the cotton fields surrounding Hoop Spur were speckled with cabins, each one home to a family of sharecroppers, and on September 30 of that year, shortly after sunset, the black farmers began walking along dirt paths and roads toward a small wooden church located about one-quarter mile north of the switching station. For most, the church was a mile or two away, or even farther, and as they expected their meeting to run late into the night, they brought along sweaters and light coats for the walk back home. Many had their children with them, and a few, like Vina Mason, were carrying babies.

By 7:00 p.m., the first of the farmers had arrived, and they lit three lamps inside the Baptist church. The wooden benches began filling up rapidly. Sallie Giles and her two sons, Albert and Milligan, reached Hoop Spur around 8:00 p.m., and by then the "house was packed," she said. Paul Hall was there, and so too were "Preacher" Joe Knox and Frank Moore, along with their wives. At last, Jim Miller and his wife, Cleola, pulled up in a horse and a buggy. Miller was president of the Hoop Spur Lodge of the Progressive Farmers and Household Union, which for the past several months had been signing up sharecroppers throughout southern Phillips County.

The one person still missing was the lodge's secretary, Ed Ware. He was, as he later admitted, thinking of quitting. The previous Thursday, September 25, sharecroppers in Elaine, a small town three miles to the south, had held a Progressive Farmers meeting, which he'd attended. The next day, white planters had singled him out and warned him not to go to any more such gatherings. He had reason to be afraid, but at last his wife, Lulu, insisted that they go, reminding him, as he later recalled, that "I had those [union] books and papers." Although they lived only one mile to the west of the church, they had to swing around to the south in order to get past the Govan Slough, a ditch lined by a thicket of trees, and it was nearly 9:00 p.m. by the time they arrived. Ware nodded at the nine or ten men milling around front, and then he shook hands with Lit Simmons at the door, both men twisting their
fingers into the lodge's secret grip.

"We've just begun," Ware whispered.

That was the union's password, and everyone who had entered that night had uttered the same thing. Although the meeting was now in full swing, with, as one sharecropper put it, "two hundred head of men, women and children" inside, Simmons and the other men in the front yard remained where they were. William Wordlow, John Martin, John Ratliff, and Will Wright stood together in one group, about fifteen feet away from the door, while Alf Banks Jr., Albert Giles, and the three Beco brothers-Joe, Boisy, and Ransom-sat in Miller's buggy. At first glance, it all seemed so peaceful. The church lamps cast the yard in a soft glow and the men were speaking in low voices, or saying nothing at all. But not too many yards distant, the light petered out, and everyone had his eyes glued to the road that disappeared into that darkness. Route 44, which ran north 22 miles to Helena, the county seat, was a lonely county road, bordered on both sides by dense patches of rivercane. In the buggy, the Beco brothers fiddled with shotguns draped across their laps, while several others nervously fingered the triggers of their hunting rifles. Martin was armed with a Smith & Wesson pistol.

At the door, Simmons was growing ever more nervous. This was only the third time that the Hoop Spur lodge had met, and at the previous meeting, which had been Simmons's first, he'd asked why it was necessary to have men stand guard. "White people don't want the union and are going to get us," he'd been told. And on this night, Simmons knew, rumors were flying that whites "were coming there to break up the meeting, or to shoot it up."

The minutes passed slowly by. Everyone listened for the sound of an approaching car, but the only noises that Simmons and the others heard, other than the chirping of field crickets, rose from inside the church. Nine-thirty passed without incident, then ten and ten-thirty. The road remained dark and quiet, and yet, to Simmons, it seemed that this night would never end.

"The whites," he muttered, "are going to kill us."

MOST OF THE HOOP SPUR farmers in the church that night were middle- aged, in their thirties, forties, and fifties, and their religious faith was such that they began all of their meetings with a prayer. They all had migrated here during the past decade, as this was about as deep in the Mississippi Delta as you could get, the cotton fields having been a tangle of swampland and dense hardwood forests only ten to fifteen years earlier. Southern Phillips County was a floodplain for both the White and Mississippi rivers, and as a result it had been about the last stretch of delta land in Arkansas to be drained and cleared. It remained an inhospitable place to live, the woods thick with fever-carrying mosquitoes, and yet it offered the black families a new hope. The two rivers had deposited topsoil so rich in minerals that geologists considered it perhaps the most fertile land in the world.

The Hoop Spur farmers were mostly from Mississippi and Louisiana, although a few hailed from as far away as North Carolina. Their journeys here had been much the same. Most had arrived during the winter months, just after the end of a harvest, as this was moving season for sharecroppers throughout the South. The black farmers almost always ended the year in debt, and so, hoping that it might be different someplace else, many packed up their meager belongings every couple of years and moved to a distant county or to another state. Most of those who'd come to Hoop Spur had arrived-as a local scholar named Bessie Ferguson wrote in 1927-with "nothing of their own with the exception of their makeshift household furniture, a few ragged clothes, a gun, and one or more dogs, sometimes a few chickens or a hog."

They'd moved into cabins that were, even by the dismal housing standards of the time, a sorry lot. Plantation owners threw up cabins made from rough lumber for their sharecroppers, each one surrounded by the plot of land that was to be worked by a family, and typically they were so poorly constructed that, as the joke went, the sharecroppers "could study astronomy through the openings in the roof and geology through the holes in the floor." A sharecropper's cabin usually consisted of one large room, perhaps 18 by 20 feet in size, where the entire family would live and sleep, with a shed attached to the back. The main room would have a fireplace for heat and a couple of windows-with wooden shutters but no glass-for light. Because southern Phillips County was so vulnerable to floods, the landowners had erected cabins that were particularly flimsy, since they needed to be "so cheap that the loss from floods is small," Ferguson said.

During the winter months, the Hoop Spur sharecroppers did what they could to survive. Occasionally it would snow, and with nighttime temperatures regularly dipping to near freezing, they struggled mightily to stay warm. They patched up the drafty walls of their cabins with newspapers, and they collected firewood from the Govan Slough and other nearby stands of trees, although at times they grew so desperate, Ferguson wrote, that "garden or yard fences are used for fuel." Fortunately, there was plenty of fish and game to be had, which complemented whatever vegetables they had grown in their gardens the summer before and canned. The woods were filled with deer, wild turkeys, rabbits, squirrels, doves, quail, and geese, and those hunting with dogs could chase bears through the canebrakes. At last, March would come and the rains would turn the fields into bogs, and the sharecroppers would pray that the levees on the White and Mississippi rivers would hold and keep away the floods that could destroy their cabins.

Once the fields began to dry, usually by the end of March, the men began breaking up the soil, leaving their cabins before the first light of day to hook ploughs to their mules, their work hours stretching, as they liked to say, from "can see to can't see." This was particularly true for the Hoop Spur farmers, as most were working 15 to 30 acres, which were large plots for sharecroppers in the Mississippi Delta. After they finished turning up the soil, which took a couple of weeks, they would run a "middlebuster" over it to form furrows and mounds. By early May, they were ready to plant. They would dig a narrow trench in the mounds and, every 18 inches or so, drop in cottonseed.

As soon as the plants sprouted, they would work the fields with long- handled hoes, chopping the weeds that grew fast and thick in the humid air. Everyone in the family would help with this chore, even the younger children spending long hours in the hot sun. Daytime temperatures regularly soared into the nineties, and night brought little relief. Malaria was a constant problem in the delta, and at dusk, in order to drive off the mosquitoes and flies, the cabins had to be smoked or sprayed with insecticide, and with the doors and windows shuttered to keep out the pests, no one slept well in the stifling air.

The cotton plants, however, flourished. Early in the season, they produced a light-hued blossom that darkened, wilted, and dropped within a couple of days, which was all the time it took for pollination. A tiny green pod soon appeared at the base of the flower, and during July and August it swelled into a boll packed with seeds wrapped in willowy fibers, until at last, in late August, the bolls split open and the fields would be painted white.

Although...

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