About The Elaine Race Riots
The Elaine race riot, also called the Elaine massacre, took place on September 30-October 1, 1919 in the vicinity of Elaine in rural Phillips County, Arkansas. With a total of five whites and estimates of at least 100 and possibly hundreds of blacks killed in white rioting in the county, it was the deadliest racial conflict in United States history.
Located in the Arkansas Delta, the county had been developed for cotton plantations, worked by African-American slaves. Its population was still overwhelmingly black: African Americans outnumbered whites in the area around Elaine by a ten-to-one ratio, and by three-to-one in the county overall. Descendants of slaves, most blacks worked as sharecroppers. White landowners controlled the economic power, selling cotton on their own schedule, running high-priced plantation stores where farmers had to buy seed and supplies, and failing to itemize their settlement of accounts with sharecroppers.
The Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America had organized chapters in the Elaine area in 1918-1919. On September 29, representatives met with about 100 black farmers at a church near Elaine to discuss how to obtain more fair settlements. Whites resisted any union organizing in the Delta and often spied on or disrupted such meetings; in a confrontation at the church, two whites were shot, one fatally. More violence quickly broke out, with the sheriff calling a posse and whites gathering to put down a rumored “black insurrection.” Other whites entered Phillips County, making a mob of 500 to 1000 whites, who roamed in groups attacking blacks on sight. The governor called in 500 federal troops, who arrested nearly 260 blacks and were accused of killing some. The events have been subject to debate, especially the total of black fatalities, as residents were killed through a wide area. Over a three-day period, five white men were killed and an estimated 100-240 blacks, with some estimates of more than 800 blacks killed.
The only men prosecuted for these events were 122 African Americans, with 73 charged with murder. Twelve were quickly convicted and sentenced to death by all-white juries for murder of the first white deputy at the church. Others were as rapidly convicted of lesser charges and sentenced to prison. During appeals, the death penalty cases were separated, with six convictions being overturned at the state level (known as Ware et al.) because of technical trial details. These six defendants were quickly retried in 1920 and convicted again, but the state supreme court overturned the verdicts, based on violations of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution and the Civil Rights Law of 1875, due to exclusion of blacks from the juries. The lower courts failed to retry the men within the two years required by Arkansas law, and the defense gained their release in 1923.
The six other death penalty cases (known as Moore et al.) ultimately reached the United States Supreme Court. The Court overturned the convictions in the Moore v. Dempsey (1923) ruling. Grounds were the failure of the trial court to provide due process under the Fourteenth Amendment, as the trials had been dominated by adverse publicity and the presence of armed white mobs threatening the jury. This was a critical precedent for the “Supreme Court’s strengthening of the requirements the Due Process Clause imposes on the conduct of state criminal trials.” The NAACP assisted the defendants in the appeals process, raising money to hire a defense team, which it helped direct. When the cases were remanded to the state court, the six ‘Moore’ defendants settled with the lower court on lesser charges and were sentenced to time already served. Governor Thomas Chipman McRae freed these six men in 1925 in the closing days of his administration. The NAACP helped them to leave the state in safety.