On the morning of May 5, 1927, people around the country awoke to read yet another gruesome lynching story out of the South. “Mob Burns Man’s Body in Little Rock Street,” declared a front-page headline in the Washington Post.
The article described how an angry mob hanged a black man named John Carter just outside of Arkansas’s capital city the previous afternoon. His body then was dragged behind an automobile “through the main street of the city and then saturated with gasoline and burned at one of the principal business corners of the negro section while thousands of persons looked on.”
Sheriff’s deputies did nothing to stop the lynching and subsequent riot; city police only directed the heavy flow of traffic around the scene. Order finally was restored in Little Rock when the governor called out the National Guard.
Similar articles appeared in cities throughout the country — Atlanta, Chicago, Memphis, and New York. The Little Rock newspapers told the same story. One headline proclaimed, “With Officers Making No Attempt At Restraint, Mob Burns Negro’s Body And Creates A Reign of Terror.”
This episode was not the first time that “a reign of terror” in Arkansas made national headlines, and it would not be the last. Mob violence drew national attention during the Brooks-Baxter War in 1874 and during the Little Rock Central High School integration crisis in 1957, and on a number of occasions in between. These mobs, as in the Elaine Race Riots, were often lynch mobs. Between 1883 and 1959, lynch mobs killed at least 284 people in Arkansas. Only five other states had more lynching deaths in the period.
The Carter lynching was especially shocking, though, because it occurred in the last days of the reign of Judge Lynch. At the time, the overall number of lynchings had been steadily declining for three decades, from 111 in the 1880s to 37 in the 1910s. Carter’s killing in May was the state’s first lynching in 1927.
The story of the lynching begins earlier that spring of 1927, with Arkansas already in the national spotlight from the Great Flood along the Arkansas and Mississippi Rivers. Thirteen percent of the state was covered with floodwater, 127 people in Arkansas died, 140,000 refugees fled to Red Cross camps, and another 60,000 received care outside of those camps. Arkansas’ recovery from this disaster would depend on outside relief.
Most headlines in the Little Rock newspapers that April and May concerned the flood, but an important secondary story developed in mid-April — important because it foreshadowed the lynching of John Carter. The first hint of it was the disappearance on April 11 of a 13-year-old Little Rock white boy. Police conducted an obligatory search but concluded that the boy had wandered off with a friend. The next day, however, another white child vanished– a girl, Floella McDonald, 12. She didn’t return home after school. Police conducted a more thorough search, lasting through the night, but found no trace of the girl. Rumor linked the disappearances, and among the theories reported in the press was police speculation in the Arkansas Democrat that the two children had been “grabbed up by a negro.”
Despite large reward offers, no information about the missing children turned up until the afternoon of the last day in April, a Saturday. That’s when Floella McDonald’s body was discovered in the belfry of the First Presbyterian Church at 8th and Scott Streets. Police discovered the body after being notified by the church janitor, Frank Dixon, described as a mulatto, of a persistent stench coming from the belfry.
Frank Dixon immediately became the prime suspect. He and his son Lonnie were arrested within hours, as were six other Little Rock blacks. Police also questioned black employees of the Little Rock Boy’s Club and Second Baptist Church, but concentrated their suspicions on Frank and Lonnie Dixon. They found a bloody hat and gloves hidden in the church, and torn trousers that were thought to belong to Frank Dixon. The police also announced that an 8-year-old white girl had told them that Lonnie Dixon had accosted her near the church a few weeks earlier. Perhaps based on this child’s information, police also ruled out any connection between Floella McDonald’s disappearance and that of the 13-year-old white boy.
Frank and Lonnie Dixon denied any involvement in the Floella McDonald murder.
The next day, May 1, a Sunday, both the Arkansas Democrat and the Arkansas Gazette carried extensive coverage of the tragedy, which the Gazette called “as dastardly a crime as was ever known here.” Both papers described the crime scene in detail. The remains of the girl were so decayed that her father could barely identify her. The coroner believed Floella was murdered soon after she disappeared, apparently from a blow to the head by a brick. He was unable to tell if the girl had been raped, but the papers implied that she had been. The Gazette reported that her bloomers had been removed and that her dress was pulled above her waist. It speculated that she had been “outraged” and “assaulted.” The papers made it clear that Frank and Lonnie Dixon were the two primary suspects and published pictures of both of them.
The First Presbyterian Church cancelled its services on Sunday morning. At 4 p.m. that Sunday a large crowd of mourners gathered at the Oakland Cemetery. Floella’s classmates attempted to sing a hymn, but their own sobs drowned out their voices. Although much of the service was devoted to grieving for Floella, the desire for vengeance was in the air. During his sermon, Rev. J. O. Johnson assured listeners that the killer would be brought to justice and admonished them not to take the law into their own hands.
“A lynching right now, when the attention of the nation is focused on Arkansas as a result of the flood situation, would cause irreparable harm to the reputation of the state,” he said. “I beseech you to leave the matter to the courts.” The effect of these words was lost on the crowd. Floella’s mother repeatedly shouted, “If I had a hold of him I’d kill him.”
Across town at almost the same time, police took a confession from Lonnie Dixon. They said Dixon confessed that he had raped and killed Floella in the church belfry on April 12. On her walk home from school that afternoon, she had entered the church to escape from the rain. The police said Lonnie admitted that he lured her up to the belfry, where he tore off her bloomers and “ravished” her; then, realizing the consequences if she told someone, he struck her with a brick, killing her instantly.
The police did not take a written confession, and no defense lawyers were present in the jail. The oral confession came after the boy was grilled by the police for almost 24 hours straight. He was kept standing most of that time, and was not allowed to sleep or eat. After confessing, police said, Lonnie led them to a nearby home where a library book and bonnet that had belonged to Floella were found. They said he told them he had hidden the items there. They also said Lonnie Dixon exonerated his father, but police nonetheless detained Frank Dixon to investigate whether he had any knowledge of the crime.
After the interrogation of Frank Dixon was finished, Police Chief Burl C. Rotenberry had two officers drive Frank and Lonnie Dixon to Malvern, where they boarded a train to Texarkana. Lonnie was jailed there temporarily. Once they were safely out of town, Chief Rotenberry notified Floella McDonald’s family of Lonnie’s confession. He promised swift justice, and asked her parents’ help in calming the clamor for a lynching.
Lonnie’s confession to what the Gazette described as acts of “unbelievable lust and brutality” confirmed the worst fears of Little Rock’s white community. He was a 17-year-old, blue-eyed, brown-haired mulatto, but he was still a “negro” in the white community’s mind. In fact, the state’s Jim Crow laws defined a “negro” as anyone “in whom there is a visible and distinct admixture of African blood.”
Most southern whites at the time considered rape of a white woman by a “negro” to be the most atrocious of crimes, and newspapers sometimes were leading apologists for lynching black men accused of it. The Little Rock Daily News had declared, for instance, that lynching was necessary as long as blacks cast their “lustful eyes on white women… . This may be ‘Southern brutality’ as far as the Boston Negro can see, but in polite circles, we call it Southern chivalry, a Southern tradition that will never die.”
However, the statistics on lynching show that black-on-white rape was seldom a factor. Of 54 lynchings in Arkansas between 1910 and 1929, only 14 involved the possible rape of a white woman; and only two were occasioned by a rape followed by a murder, as was the charge against Lonnie Dixon. The crime attributed to most lynching victims was murder, not rape, so lynchings weren’t simply to defend white women. Rather, they punished blacks who violated the “color line.” Even the Little Rock Daily News acknowledged that “as long as any of them seek to break down the color barrier that has been between the Negro and white man for a thousand years,” whites would not be “slow or timid” in carrying out revenge.
Word of Dixon’s confession spread quickly through Little Rock. Within a few hours of the police announcement, angry mobs of whites formed outside of the state penitentiary and city hall. At the state penitentiary, located at the south edge of the city on Roosevelt Road, a crowd of 2,000 gathered and demanded that Lonnie and Frank Dixon be turned over. Warden S. L. Todhunter told leaders of the mob that the Dixons weren’t being held there, and he took five of them on a tour of the place to prove it. While the inspection tour was in progress, the mob became restless. Shots were fired into the warden’s office. The mob then broke through the gates and stormed the facility.
The scene was the same at city hall on Markham Street, besieged by a mob estimated at 2,000 to 5,000 people. Chief Rotenberry stationed a shotgun squad around the building. He tried to calm the mob and assured rioters that the Dixons had been taken out of the state. He also allowed mob leaders to search the jail. They pressed him to tell them the location but he refused. They threatened him, and at one point laid hands on him, but his armed officers interceded. Others addressed the city hall crowd — Mayor Charles Moyer, a preacher, a state Supreme Court justice, and several city aldermen –but weren’t able to placate the demonstrators. Governor John Martineau wanted to use fire hoses and tear gas against them, but Mayor Moyer declined, noting the presence of “scores of women in the throng.”
Eighteen mob members were arrested during the evening. Rumors of the Dixons’ whereabouts had gangs of angry whites buzzing about the city in search of them. Groups of between 100 and 500 men drove to Malvern, Benton, Sheridan, and Hot Springs to see if the Dixons might be in the jails there. The crowd at city hall finally began to thin out around midnight.
The next morning, Monday, May 2, an Arkansas Gazette headline summed up the previous day’s developments: “Negro Youth Confesses to Brutal Crime” and “Crowd Gathers To Lynch Young Negro.” The paper quoted city officials promising quick justice for Lonnie Dixon. Judge Abner McGehee and prosecutor A. B. Cypret promised a speedy trial. Local lawyers said that Lonnie’s age would not prevent him from receiving the electric chair; that Arkansas law allowed executions at age 14. The mob was called the “largest ever to stage a demonstration in the city,” but Warden Todhunter at the prison and the authorities at city hall offered statements defending their timidity and inaction in handling the mob.
Sunday’s lynch mob wasn’t the first one that had gathered in Little Rock. In 1892, for example, a young black man was lynched at Fifth and Main after having been accused of assaulting a 5-year-old white girl. And as recently as 1921, Little Rock police had battled a 600-man mob trying to lynch two black rape suspects in the state penitentiary.
The 1927 mob knew by Monday morning that the Dixons had been moved to safety, but the mob excitement did not flag. The 18 ruffians arrested the night before appeared in municipal court, and the white judge dismissed charges against them, warning them against further violence. Then on Monday night, hundreds of whites again gathered outside the penitentiary and city hall, demanding that authorities disclose the Dixons’ whereabouts. Smaller crowds gathered at 17th and Main and 20th and Woodrow. More mob leaders were allowed to look in the local jails. A group of 35 white men stormed Chief Rotenberry’s house, but he and his family had taken refuge out of town.
Also on Monday, the Little Rock Bar Association issued a statement affirming that Lonnie Dixon was old enough to be executed if found guilty. The Association of Negro Ministers of All Denominations issued a resolution praising police for their efforts to apprehend Lonnie Dixon. On behalf of the “negro population of Little Rock and vicinity,” the ministers condemned the “dastardly crime committed and confessed by a youth of our race in this community” and asked for a “speedy trial and legal punishment if found guilty.”
They also thanked police for having prevented mob violence on Sunday.
By Tuesday morning, May 3, news about the flood took over the headlines again. The local newspapers also began to put Sunday’s mob activity in perspective. An Arkansas Gazette editorial praised Chief Rotenberry and the Little Rock Police Department for helping Little Rock avoid the “disgrace of lynching.” The editorial echoed Rev. Johnson’s sentiments from Floella’s funeral that lynching Lonnie Dixon would damage the state’s flood relief efforts:
“A lynching, always a moral disaster for a community, would have been especially deplorable at this time when Arkansas is in the eyes of the nation by reason of the flood news … and when the people of America are going into their pockets for generous contributions to relieve [our] distress …”
No major disturbances were reported on Tuesday, but police maintained a 100-officer armed guard at city hall. The Pulaski County Grand Jury met and indicted Lonnie Dixon on charges of assault and murder, each punishable by death. His trial date was set for Thursday, May 19. No charges were brought against Frank Dixon . The Grand Jury also warned the public that mob violence wouldn’t be tolerated.
About 9 a.m. the next morning — Wednesday, May 4 –a white woman, Mrs. B.E. Stewart, and her daughter Glennie were traveling by wagon in a rural area just west of Little Rock when John Carter, 38, a black man, hailed them. This Carter had been named in a previous encounter with a white woman, and was said to have “shown evidence of being feeble minded. “He asked Mrs. Stewart for directions to a nearby bridge, then, according to subsequent newspaper accounts, jumped in the wagon and demanded whiskey. He threatened Mrs. Stewart and Glennie with an iron bar, until Mrs. Stewart fell from the wagon. Carter jumped out of the wagon, threw rocks at the Stewarts, then grabbed a nearby tree limb and struck Mrs. Stewart numerous times with it. Soon an automobile appeared on the scene and Carter fled into the surrounding woods. The Stewarts were hospitalized after the attack, Mrs. Stewart with a broken arm.
Word of the attack spread quickly and electrified the city. The afternoon Arkansas Democrat had a front-page story, and hundreds of white men volunteered to form a posse to help Sheriff Mike Haynie search for Carter. The black community tried to get involved as well. At noon, nine of the city’s black leaders, including lawyer Scipio A. Jones, called the sheriff to offer their assistance. They were clearly trying to head off a lynching.
Scipio A. Jones especially understood the terrible potential of mob violence. He had been one of the lawyers for the 12 black men convicted in the 1919 Elaine race riot, in which a rampaging white mob had slaughtered blacks indiscriminately for nearly a week, and many blacks had fought back. The Little Rock black leaders knew a similar situation could develop here. Marcet Haldeman-Julius, a Kansas journalist who was in Little Rock at the time, reported that during the day word was “passed around by the leading Negroes of the city that all colored people must keep off the streets as much as possible and under even gravest pressure avoid a conflict.”
Self-appointed white posses searched the countryside for Carter all afternoon. Around 5 p.m. a group found him hiding in a tree. Shots were fired into the air to bring the other searchers. They took Carter to the Twelfth Street Cut-off in west Little Rock, where up to 200 armed men soon gathered. They brought Glennie Stewart to the scene and she identified Carter as her attacker. A few law enforcement officers tried to take Carter into custody, but were powerless against the mob.
Mob spokesmen asked Carter if he had any last requests. He asked for a cup of water and a cigarette, and these were granted, as was his request to say a final prayer. Members of the mob then put a rope around his neck , threw the loose end over a utility pole, and forced him onto the top of a car. One of them drove the car away, leaving Carter hanging from the pole. The mob then pumped more than 200 shots into the dangling corpse.
Sheriff Haynie reached the scene about 15 minutes after the lynching. He turned Carter’s body over to the county coroner, but the mob wasn’t done with Carter yet. When the sheriff stepped away for a moment, someone shouted, “Everybody that wants to drag the nigger down Ninth Street and burn him, gimme your right hand.”
Nearly every hand went into the air.
The mob then tied Carter’s corpse behind a car and dragged it into Little Rock. A caravan of more than 50 cars paraded the mangled body around the city. With hundreds watching from the side of the road, the cars drove down Main Street, past city hall, finally stopping at the intersection of Ninth and Broadway. This intersection was at the commercial heart of Little Rock’s black community. The Mosaic Temple, the national headquarters of the Mosaic Templars fraternal organization, was at the intersection, as was the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
By 7 p.m., the mob had grown to around 5,000 people. It had young white men, older community leaders, children, even women with babies in it. Mob leaders put Carter’s body on the streetcar tracks, doused it with gasoline, and set it ablaze. They stoked the fire with doors, windows, and furniture from nearby buildings, including pews from the Bethel Church. Indiscriminate gunfire occurred all night.
For three hours, the mob rioted through the black district. Frightened business owners hid inside their shops and turned off the lights, praying that they would escape the wrath of the crowd. Black families in the surrounding residential neighborhood did the same. But rumors flew among white rioters that blacks were mobilizing on East 6th and that they had shot a Western Union messenger. On hearing this rumor, a white man in the mob was overheard to shout, “Let’s go down there and wipe out the niggers.” Soon a caravan of about a hundred cars filled with armed white men arrived at that location but found it deserted. They did nab one black man in the vicinity — a man named Aren Christian who was found to have a pistol in his pocket –but they let him off with a severe beating, sparing his life.
Where were Little Rock’s authorities during the three hours of rioting? Both Mayor Moyer and Police Chief Rotenberry were out of town, and news about John Carter’s lynching and the bloody aftermath had brought neither of them back. Gov. Martineau was in Van Buren at that city’s strawberry festival. When the riot started, many Little Rock policemen were still in the woods west of the city, unaware that Carter had been found and lynched. But even when they returned, they took no action. They didn’t respond when a telephone tipster alerted them that the mob over on 6th Street was debating whether to lynch Aren Christian.
Captain E. W. Crow assumed control of the police department in Rotenberry’s absence. Major James A. Pitcock, chief of detectives, told Crow, “If you’ll let me pick 50 men, I can go up there and stop the business. We may lose a few men, but we would have the situation in hand.” But Crow refused to take any action. “Can’t do it,” he told Pitcock. “This is in the hands of the City Council. We can’t do anything.”
Crow did, however, station five men with tear gas outside city hall –to protect the police. It was widely reported that some policemen were playing cards in the basement.
With the mayor absent, Alderman Joe Bilheimer assumed the post, went to Ninth and Broadway, and tried to stop the disturbance, but the mob showed no interest. At 9 p.m., the city council met in emergency session, but took no real action except to phone the governor and ask him to call out the National Guard. This the governor did around 10 p.m., three hours after the riot began.
Capt. Harry Smith immediately deployed Company H, 206th Coast Artillery, of the Arkansas National Guard. Soon more than 70 troops armed with rifles, fixed bayonets and tear gas arrived. They were greeted at the intersection by a man directing traffic with a charred arm that had been broken off of John Carter’s body.
Between 1,000 and 2,000 rioters were still present, but they melted away within 10 minutes of the troops’ arrival. The National Guard patrolled the area through the night. A company of soldiers looked in on the East Sixth Street area. But there were no other disturbances. The Gazette reported that “all negro business houses and residences in the vicinity appeared deserted throughout the night.”
The next morning — Thursday, May 5 — the streets were calm, but grim reminders of the previous night’s activities were everywhere. For example, on Main Street a boy was selling pictures of John Carter’s lynched body for 15 cents a copy.
The police and other local officials began to rationalize and defend their conduct. Mayor Moyer justified police inaction during the riot, made no apology for his own or the police chief’s absence, and supported the city council’s decision not to attempt to disperse the mob. He issued a statement saying:
“The situation is very bad, but I don’t see that it could be improved by mourning today over the bodies of 250 officers and citizens such as I believe would have been the result had the police and sheriff’s forces attacked the mob last night. No doubt such an action would have resulted also in the burning of an entire section of the city. I thank God that we have been fortunate enough to prevent the loss
of life in the city, either of our officers or any of the citizens. I sincerely hope that the trial of Lonnie Dixon will be allowed to proceed legally and lawfully. It is certain that he will be executed, and I sincerely hope that no further violence will be resorted to.”
Captain Crow also defended police inaction, and Sheriff Haynie had no apologies. He claimed that he and his deputies could not have stopped the lynching or the dragging of the body into the city. He seemed more concerned about the spectacle of dragging the body about — “Everything had proceeded up until that time in a perfectly orderly manner,” he said — than the lynching itself.
The mayor said police could prevent further trouble and asked that the governor remove the National Guard.
Gov. Martineau disagreed. He criticized city officials for failing to prevent the lynching and stop the riot. Quick decisive action would have accomplished both tasks, he said. He also directed the National Guard to continue patrolling the city, and told troops to break up crowds and arrest troublemakers. “We don’t want bloodshed,” he said, “but there must be no more rioting in Little Rock. Use your heads first, but if necessary, use guns and bullets.”
Martineau was well aware of national attention to the case. For instance, James Weldon Johnson, national secretary of the NAACP, had cabled him from New York to encourage that “further lawless outbreaks against negroes” be “sternly suppressed.”
The governor withdrew the Guard troops the following day, but kept them on alert as rumors continued to circulate that Lonnie Dixon would be lynched when he returned to the city.
The Grand Jury met that Thursday morning to begin a probe into the lynching. The investigation focused not only on the participants in the lynching but on the derelict authorities. Two 1909 state laws required responsible officials to break up unlawful assemblies of more than 20 people, and provided for their suspension and removal from office when they failed to do so.
The Gazette had a front-page editorial that day that was more critical of the handling of the riot than of the lynching and mob excesses. City and county officials must be held accountable for failing to prevent the lynching and the “Saturnalia of savagery” that followed it, the editorial said. It continued: “In millions of homes throughout America, when families gather for the morning meal today, the name of Little Rock will be read with expressions of horror … .”
The Democrat editorialized similarly that afternoon. It, too, emphasized official dereliction and wondered that more violence didn’t occur. “Thousands of women and children, terror-stricken, huddled in their homes while anarchy ran riot but a few blocks away,” the editorial said. “But for the arrival of the National Guard, led by a young man of true courage, none knows what might have happened.”
Both papers kept up the editorial drumfire for several days, but only one editorial in the batch mentioned the city’s black community and the effect on it of all these terrible events. And that was a passing mention.
The more common concern was for the city’s and state’s image, and for the chilling effect the “trouble” might have on outside flood relief. A representative opinion piece in the Conway News worried about the “black mark” on Arkansas “at a time when the Red Cross [is] giving Arkansas every aid possible to recover from the disastrous flood … . [T]his infamous contempt for the law and order will naturally make timid eastern capitalists who have become interested in Arkansas resources and were ready to invest… .”
The image concern was foremost in the minds of the civic groups and booster organizations, too. More than 100 city business leaders met in an emergency Chamber of Commerce session that Thursday. An attorney named W.A. McDonnell proposed a resolution condemning the lynching and he said: “This comes at a time when the eyes of the country are upon us, when we have our hands out, so to speak, to accept generous contributions toward our flood relief fund. The atrocious thing that occurred last night is 10 times worse than a flood.”
Another Chamber member urged the Grand Jury act quickly against those responsible for mob violence because otherwise “on the 19th day of this month [the date of Lonnie Dixon’s trial], another negro will be burned alive at Capitol Avenue and Main Street at high noon.” The Chamber meeting concluded with the passage of a resolution condemning the lynching and mutilation of Carter, denouncing the local and county authorities, commending the National Guard, and pledging money the Grand Jury might need to make a full investigation.
The Little Rock Bar Association weighed in with a similar catch-all resolution, and it hoped the city would regain its composure lest the fevered atmosphere compromise Lonnie Dixon’s prospects for a fair trial. On just such grounds the U.S. Supreme Court had overturned the convictions of several of those black tenant farmers condemned in the Elaine race riot of 1919.
The lynching spurred more than 30 letters of differing opinions to the editor of local newspapers. Most, but not all, decried the violence.
Two other responses of the white community in the days following the lynching were not reported in the local press. First, on May 7, the Little Rock Board of Censors banned further distribution in Little Rock of the Chicago Defender, a black-owned newspaper. It banned distribution of the Pittsburgh Courier, also black-owned, a week later. The censor board said these papers “agitated the state of mind of the colored populace of the city” with their coverage of the lynching and its aftermath. It banned them for the duration of the month of May and threatened to extend the ban if the papers continued to run “inflammatory” stories from Little Rock.
What sort of coverage did these papers carry? It included articles, opinion, cartoons, photos of local officials and a photo of Carter’s lynched body in which a police officer was visible. Read a caption: “And They Can’t Identify This Policeman?”
The other white-community response was related: Theodore Holmes was a correspondent for the Associated Negro Press in Little Rock. He wrote many of the articles that the censor board had found offensive and dangerous. He was also associate editor of The Survey, a black newspaper in Little Rock. On May 13, nine days after the lynching and riot, a group of armed white men searched the city for Holmes but could not find him. One member of this would-be lynching party was later quoted in the Pittsburgh Courier as saying: “All we want is this nigger’s address and we will teach him a lesson.” Holmes, fearing for his life, left Little Rock for St. Louis.
The reaction of Little Rock’s black community to the lynching of John Carter is harder to assess. The Gazette and Democrat rarely mentioned this element of the citizenry. Few other sources have been preserved. Black people who lived here at the time are still reluctant to talk of those frightful events. Only the Chicago Defender and Pittsburgh Courier gave the black community’s perspective much attention, and a study of their coverage suggests the following:
• That one immediate effect of the lynching and mob display was a paralyzing fear in a segment of the black community. The first reaction was to seek safety rather than revenge. The presence of the National Guard the next day didn’t restore black people’s confidence. The Pittsburgh Courier said “hundreds of colored office and shop employees failed to report for duty Thursday morning” and the black business section was a “deserted village” throughout the day.
Little Rock’s blacks were afraid to comment publicly about the lynching. Few public statements came from their community organizations. Theodore Holmes reported that black residents “would not permit themselves to be quoted.” C.L. Thompson, a white man in charge of flood relief in the city, said black people all over the city fled in terror whenever white relief workers approached them to offer aid.
• That many black residents simply left town. Some found temporary sanctuary with friends or family in Hot Springs, Pine Bluff, and other nearby towns, but many left Little Rock for good. The Chicago Defender reported that more than 400 black citizens left Little Rock for Memphis in the days following the lynching, there to catch northbound trains, and this exodus was said to continue for months afterward.
• That a relative small number of African Americans here responded to the lynching by arming for self-defense. Several boxes of machine gun bullets were discovered by a white deputy in a black man’s car on May 6, and a letter published in the Chicago Defender reported that blacks who weren’t leaving town were securing arms and would violently prevent further lynching attempts. If blacks really were arming, however, they never put all these guns to any organized use.
The Pulaski County Grand Jury met on the Thursday, Friday, and Saturday following the lynching and then adjourned until Tuesday, May 10. During this time it interviewed more than 30 witnesses, including the mayor, police chief and sheriff. But nothing came of the investigation. The jury foreman and six other members of the 15-man panel asked on May 10 to be discharged from further service. The foreman said he and the six resigning members had favored indicting the mayor and the sheriff, but the other jurors wouldn’t go along. The jury was deadlocked, and the foreman told Judge Abner McGehee:
“I feel, your honor, that I cannot longer serve my county and city in this capacity. One of the most foul outrages ever committed has been perpetrated on our city and its citizens. The law has been flouted and made ridiculous, and the entire community has been absolutely ruled and outraged on two different occasions within the past two weeks by a lawless mob. The damage to us in a business and social way cannot be estimated in dollars. It will take many years to eradicate this blot from the city’s record.”
A member of the jury who didn’t resign offered a statement commending the mayor and sheriff “for their refusal to precipitate bloodshed.” He said the grand jury’s investigation should have been limited to those persons who participated in the lynching.
The next day Judge McGehee dismissed the Grand Jury because it “could not properly function.” The Grand Jury never filed a report, and Judge McGehee did not renew the investigation.
The city then turned its attention to the upcoming trial of Lonnie Dixon, which was set for Thursday, May 19. Blacks and whites alike anticipated the trial with anxiety and apprehension. Would it resolve the tension, or just bring more bloodshed, perhaps even a full-blown race war?
Gov. Martineau on May 14 issued a formal warning against mob violence. He called the Carter lynching “a deed which will forever remain as a blot upon the fair name of our state” and said such a thing would not be allowed to happen again. Sheriff Haynie issued a similar statement that same day, and for the first time expressed some regret at his handling — or lack of it — of the Carter lynch mob. The Democrat called for a “return to…reason” so Lonnie Dixon could be tried, sentenced, and executed in orderly fashion.
The police brought Lonnie Dixon to the state penitentiary in Little Rock on Monday, May 16. For two weeks he had been trundled between jails in Texarkana, Ashdown, Little River County, and Idabel, Okla. Gov. Martineau, as promised, deployed National Guard troops around the penitentiary to prevent a lynching. Machine guns stood at various points around the facility. Threats of violence persisted, however. The Pittsburgh Courier reported that the next day “several prominent Negro business and professional men received letters advising them to leave town at once, if they did not want to be killed.” A black Little Rock letter writer told the Chicago Defender: “Their threat now is that if they can’t lynch Dixon they will take a [black] child the same age as the dead white child and mob her.”
A white man was arrested in Little Rock that day, May 17, and charged with “agitating trouble” in connection with the upcoming trial.
The atmosphere was tense in Little Rock on the day of the trial. “Dixon has been guarded more closely than any other prisoner in the county’s history,” the Democrat reported. More than 200 armed deputies and National Guard troops guarded Pulaski County Courthouse, and more National Guardsmen were on call. A threat of a bombing should Dixon be acquitted led police to close streets surrounding the courthouse to traffic. Special passes were required to get into the courtroom. In addition, police “riot squads” were standing by if trouble broke out elsewhere in the city.
Two days before the trial, Judge McGehee randomly selected Little Rock lawyers Ector R. Johnson and J. F. Wills to defend Lonnie Dixon. Quality legal representation they were not. The night before the trial, an Associated Negro Press reporter asked them to comment on the case and they said, “We are unprepared to make a statement because we have not even seen a copy of the indictment.” If a change of venue was in order — and the inflamed community suggests it was — the lawyers didn’t bother to ask for one.
The trial lasted less than five hours. Dixon pleaded not guilty and claimed that a friend of his, Eugene Hudson, had killed Floella McDonald. He said he confessed because the police told him they were holding his mother and would release her only if he confessed. The main evidence against him were his confession and the testimony of the girl who claimed to have been accosted by him.
The all-white jury deliberated for seven minutes — approximately the time it took for all the members to sign the guilty verdict. His attorneys waived his right to a two-day stay before sentencing. Judge McGehee sentenced him to be electrocuted on June 24, his 18th birthday, barely a month later. His attorneys waived his right to appeal. Police then took him back to the state penitentiary, where he would stay until the date of his execution.
After the Dixon trial, the Carter lynching quickly faded from Little Rock’s attention. The flood relief efforts regained dominance of the headlines in the local papers. Only the northern black newspapers gave the episode continued prominent play. The Pittsburgh Courier saw the Dixon trial as a new variation on the old lynching theme, and the electrocution of Lonnie Dixon after a sham trial as just a slower, more respectable version of what had happened to John Carter. Nor was Arkansas through with lynching.
On June 8, the state notched its second lynching of the year. A mob of more than 500 people lynched a prominent black man named Owen Flemming in Mellwood, a small town five miles south of Elaine. Flemming was thought to have murdered an overseer at a flood refugee camp in Phillips County. The white posse that captured him reportedly phoned the sheriff at Helena offering to turn him over — this according to the Pittsburgh Courier — but the sheriff said, “I’m busy, just go ahead and lynch him.”
In the early morning hours of June 24, Dixon made his final confession. In a signed report, he admitted his guilt and cleared Eugene Hudson of wrongdoing. He concluded by saying: “…Please forgive me for not telling you the truth with my own voice, the truth, and try to understand that my misstatements to you were simply a part of my desperate effort in my dire extremity to prevent the inevitable.”
He was electrocuted at 5 a.m. as 30 spectators watched. He was pronounced dead at 5:12.
The state’s third and final lynching of 1927 was at Wilmot, in Ashley County, on August 25 — a black man named Winston Pounds, said to have tried to rape a white woman.
In January 1928, Mayor Moyer delivered his annual report wrapping up the events of 1927 in Little Rock. It had no mention of the Carter lynching. It quoted the police chief as saying, “I believe there has been less serious crimes in 1927 than in the previous years in Little Rock. This department has certainly done excellent work during the year.”
The mayor had only praise for the police force. “I feel that no city anywhere has a finer police force than the city of Little Rock. There are few cities of the size of our own that have as little crime, and as few law violators in it. The officers and men are high type citizens and are honored and respected as such by the people of the city.” In summary he said: “The year has been a pleasant one, although there have been shadows as well as sunshine, and many vexatious problems have been presented.”
The state witnessed only two more lynchings subsequently. One occurred in Crossett in 1932, and the other in Poinsett County in 1936.
After Lonnie Dixon’s execution, Little Rock put the lynching of John Carter in the past and turned its attention to the future. The episode was embarrassing to the white community and painful to the black community. But 30 years later, the event would resurface as vivid as ever. The night before her daughter Elizabeth would try to enter all-white Little Rock Central High School, Birdie Eckford tried to explain her fears to Daisy Bates:
“I am frightened Mrs. Bates. Not for myself, but for my children.. When I was a little girl, my mother and I saw a lynch mob dragging the body of a Negro man through the streets of Little Rock. We were told to get off the streets. We ran. And by cutting through side streets and alleys, we managed to make it to the home of a friend. But we were close enough to hear the screams of the mob, close enough to smell the sickening odor of burning flesh. And, Mrs. Bates, they took the pews from Bethel Church to make the fire. They burned the body of this Negro man right at the edge of the Negro business section.”
That image was supplanted by one of Elizabeth Eckford the following day at the bus-stop outside of Central High surrounded by an angry, jeering white mob. “Get her. Lynch her,” the mob cried. The police did nothing to protect her, and in this case the National Guard, then under control of Gov. Orval E. Faubus, failed to offer assistance.
Elizabeth Eckford’s story had a different, better ending from John Carter’s. Little Rock had changed in one important way since 1927; lynch mobs no longer ruled the city. Little else had changed, though. Segregation and a racist legal system continued to set the tone for race relations in the city, and because of that, Elizabeth Eckford experienced the same fear her mother had experienced three decades before.
There were lessons to be learned from each of these episodes, and one of the best expressions of the need to learn and relearn them was a letter to the editor from Dr. Hay Watson Smith, a minister at the Second Presbyterian Church in Little Rock, printed in the Arkansas Gazette on May 8, 1927. Here’s what he wrote about the city’s last lynching:
“It is clear that the outrage committed in our community was largely due to race prejudice, and the question whether that prejudice rests upon a sound basis of fact ought to be asked and answered by every citizen of Little Rock. It ought to be asked and answered in the interests of truth and fairness today, and of law and order tomorrow; for as long as unreasoning race prejudice prevails, the tinder will always be ready for the spark. What happened this week will happen again.”
Brian Greer graduated from Hendrix College in May with a bachelor’s degree in history. Research for this article was conducted in fulfillment of the history department’s Advanced Research and Writing Seminar. Because of its inflammatory nature, the topic has often been avoided by local residents and has rarely been investigated by historians. This piece offers both new source material and a contemporary perspective on the events. The author is still attempting to collect oral and written histories of the event. Anyone with knowledge of it is encouraged to e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or write him care of the Arkansas Times, PO Box 34010, Little Rock AR 72203.