In the dedication of the Elaine Legacy Center last February, Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen asked people not to forget context.
The September 1919 Elaine massacre — in which an estimated 200-plus African Americans were killed, another 285 were arrested and 12 men were sentenced to death — was not an isolated incident. It had come just months after World War I and at the end of a bloody summer in 1919 in which labor organizing by blacks was met with violent opposition by whites. In response to union organizing in Phillips County and fear of having to pay fair wages to black sharecroppers, action by police and lawmakers led to the death sentences of black men without due process. It was the deadliest race riot in U.S. history. That did not make it an outlier, though, by any means, Griffen reminded the crowd.
“Please, young people, remember the dots,” he said. Because those fights still rage on: the fight for a $15 minimum wage, the killings of black men by the police, an unfair justice system. But how many young people are even taught that the dots exist?
“The thing about Elaine is that I didn’t learn about it growing up,” Michael Wilson told me over the phone. He now lives in San Francisco and is a filmmaker, but grew up in Little Rock and attended Central High, graduating in 1988. “I learned nothing about it [at Central], and I learned nothing about it at Hendrix [College], and it was just shocking to me that what I would consider, at this point, the most important event in Arkansas’s history was consciously and unconsciously suppressed.”
Wilson wants to be part of changing that. As the 100th anniversary of the Elaine massacre nears, Wilson is in production on a documentary about the events of 1919 and their continued reverberations. He and a crew of local multitalented artists, including Joshua Asante and Phillip Rex Huddleston — both musicians who also work as visual artists — spent time in Elaine last October and are hoping to go back in 2018 to complete the film in time for the anniversary in 2019.
A key part of the effort will be to include the context that Griffen said is needed.
“One of the key failures in understanding, or framing, the Elaine massacre is in failing to talk about the fact that this was, in fact, a labor battle,” Wilson said. “The entire massacre was initiated because of a threat to a capitalist class in Phillips County.”
Black writers at the time certainly saw the event as the result of a connection between labor and white supremacy. Ida B. Wells, who famously wrote about Elaine and the sentences of death imposed on 12 black men, wrote sarcastically that the “terrible crime these men had committed was to organize.
“The colored men who went to war for this democracy returned home determined to emancipate themselves from the slavery which took all a man and his family could earn, left him in debt, gave him no freedom of action, no protection for his life or property, no education for his children, but did give him Jim Crow cars, lynching and disfranchisement,” she wrote.
This disenfranchisement, scholars have pointed out, is often ignored in general history education. Instead, the standard narrative is of a struggle beginning in the mid-1950s and ending in the mid-1960s, couched into a singular series of events called the civil rights movement. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is the central figure, imagined continually giving an “I have a dream speech” — calling only for peace — with discussions of unionization and his assassination while organizing a worker’s strike gone. The focus on capitalism’s effect on black lives is almost always absent, as is a history of activism that stretches back much farther, especially events that occurred in the early 20th century, like the 1927 lynching of John Carter in Little Rock. Failing to recognize those episodes as part of a continuation of a long civil rights movement, risks undermining the impact of modern-day iterations like Black Lives Matter.
“It’s important to not think of this as just an isolated event, but to really talk about how labor and class organization in the Delta was a fixture. And that it was violently suppressed multiple times,” Wilson said, putting the event in a wider context and tracing its effects to the present moment. Because, he said, “we haven’t come as far as we think we have.”
A fundraiser to benefit the Elaine Community Center is set for 9 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 18, at the White Water Tavern, with performances from Silver Anchors, a new project from film crewmember Phillip Rex Huddleston; Princeaus; and DJ Yumamerle. For more on that performance, see page 22.