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

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

Robert Whitaker

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Product Description

Product Description

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.

From the Hardcover edition.

Product details

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 2976 KB
  • Print Length: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Crown; 1 edition (10 Jun 2008)
  • Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B001AX9QS8
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
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  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #1,060,549 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.7 out of 5 stars  14 reviews
17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Script Worthy of a Movie? 17 Jun 2008
By Herbert L Calhoun - Published on
The very title of the book suggests that a great deal of help was needed in overcoming one of the most shameful events in the annals of America's very dark racial history. The events in question have to do with Robert Whitaker's award winning story about what happened to a group of black sharecroppers in the Mississippi Delta, in Elaine, Arkansas, just up the street from Helena, about a 4 hours drive from my own hometown of Pine Bluff, Arkansas.

What happened on the night of September 30, 1919 has been seared into the collective memory of all blacks affiliated with the Helena area. On that night, a group of Black sharecroppers, who had gotten tired of years of being cheated out of their fair share of their cotton crops, decided to take matters into their own hands by forming a union with the intention of petitioning and eventually suing their landowners to redress this long-running economic inequity and injustice.

This injustice, incidentally was common practice used against black farmers, whether sharecroppers or not, and existed all over not just Arkansas, but all over the South. As a small boy, I can distinctly remember my grandfather, Silas Brown, who was not a sharecropper, but happened to own his own proverbial "forty acres and two mules (Blue and Cake)," bitterly complaining about how he too was being cheated out of his cotton crop by the unscrupulous "buyers and ginners of cotton."

In any case, the group didn't get very far along in their plans to form a union, as a car pulled up to the wooden church where the meeting was taking place and with a posse of "federalized concerned white citizens" began a four day massacre that ended up killing more than 100 black men, women and children, and was also coincidentally responsible for the death of a solitary white man.

This "white instigated vigilante action," as is customary in the U.S., was of course referred to as a "race riot." Meaning of course that the blacks inside the church, and not the white terrorists outside, were responsible for the occurrence of the incident. In the "mop up operation," following this clear white vigilante action, massacring more than 100 blacks, more than 300 black farmers were also arrested and charged with a variety of crimes ranging from illegal assembly, rioting, resisting arrest, carrying concealed weapons, to the murder of the lone white man.

In the "kangaroo court" that followed, the court-appointed defense attorneys refused to call any witnesses; prosecution witnesses were whipped if they didn't lie; and a mob held sway outside the courthouse, threatening to burn it down if there were no convictions. Some of the defendants were sentenced to die in the electric chair in less than two minutes; the rest in no more than a few hours. The all-white jury consisting of the normal cast of characters, of local leaders and "distinguished concerned white citizens" sentenced the "so-called union ring leaders" to death in the electric chair.

In 1919, this was American justice in its fullest racial glory.

The book however, is not about the "so-called race riot" per se, but is about the heroic legal efforts of a black Little Rock attorney named Scipio Africanus Jones, an about how he succeeded in taking the case (Moore vv. Dempsey) all the way to the Supreme Court and getting six of the death sentences overturned. And while the author readily admits that many of those involved in the legal victory were white, for obvious reasons his focus was on the bravery, courage and skill of this lone black lawyer, who risked his life in taking up the cause of the defense.

Since the context and circumstances of the story constituted a virtual leitmotif of small town southern racial injustice, it is puzzling how some Arkansas white historians (especially the author of Blood in Their Eyes, which is "a decidedly white account" of the same set of events) can call the incident controversial? It is also difficult to see why they chafe over the fact that Scipio Jones was made into a black legal hero. It is a black hero story, told about black people. Do whites have to always steal all black narratives, when American history is written? Why not just leave it alone?

As a footnote, there was once a black High School in North Little Rock, Arkansas, in the same AA Conference as my own Merrill High, name Scipio Jones High School. Until reading this book, I had never known who Scipio Jone was.

Worthy of a movie for sure! Five stars
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A MUST READ book 23 Aug 2008
By Donald B. Fouser - Published on
On the Laps of Gods by Robert Whitaker: This is a MUST READ book by a jornalist formerly with the Wall Street Journal. It focuses on an attempt by tenant farmers in Southeastern Arkansas to organize and collectively confront the land owners with theft of profits due the tem. Land owners learned of the cooperative meeting and ambushed them in their local church, beginning a trail of killing that eventually took the lives of 100 black tenant farmers and their families. They were assisted by Federal Troops from a local barracks who used machine guns on the tenant farmers. Whitaker pictures this confrontation in the larger picture of consistent and planned disenfrantisement of the black in all of the the states of the Confederate south by agreement with the local law officers and the local court systems as they passed law after law diminishing the rights of blacks. The Supreme Court USA of the time looked the other way arguing states rights dispite abuse of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution.

Whitaker paints a lesson for us all. In a day when the US government easily condemns lack of freedom for citizens of other countries, we must look back on our own recent past. It is an agonizing moral dilemma and should tax our own moral code. The hero here is Scipio Africanus Jones, born a slave who rose to practice law and free the 87 Arkansas prisoners falsely accused of murder by collusion of the courts and the law and who faced either long prison sentences or execution. WHAT A STORY.
8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars American My Lai 9 Feb 2009
By C. P. Anderson - Published on
It's great to see that this incident has finally merited its own book. I had heard it in a number of different books, but those only whetted my appetite for more.

It's quite an interesting story. First, imagine some illiterate, dirt-poor, African-American sharecroppers in the heart of the Delta in the early part of the 20th century trying to organize a union. This then becomes a pretext for - there's no getting around - an out-and-out massacre. This massacre includes bands of Whites from over an extended area hunting African-Americans down like deer. Next, pull in the state militia and have them machine gun the hiding places where the African-Americans have fled. Finally, round up over 100 African-Americans and try them for murder. While you're at it, though, make sure you torture them with beatings, electric shocks, and drugs so they will be sure to perjure themselves.

Yup, it all actually happened, right here in these United States. Depressing as this all sounds, the book is actually quite uplifting. The hero of the story is a local lawyer, born a slave, who takes on the case and never gives up - taking it all the way to the Supreme Court, where it's actually reversed and becomes a milestone in combating states rights and making the 14th Amendment actually work.

Never heard of it? That's not too surprising. African-American history, especially what happened between the Civil War and the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s, is hidden history.

I've actually read a ton of these books. This one seems particularly good to me. First, it's the only one I know that treats this particular (very important and very interesting) incident. Just as important, though, it is very well written. Unlike some of the other books, I had no problem following the who, what, where, and when. The author has a very lucid style that just flows and flows. At the same time, the author is also able to relay the emotional punch of the events.

My only caveats are the emphasis on legal stuff (though he does a much better job than others). I also wasn't sure if there was enough context for the average reader. A lot of the other books go much more into the national picture - WEB DuBois and Booker T. Washington, Ida Wells, the NAACP, lynching legislation, etc. Nonetheless, he does keep it in the context of 1919, probably the worst year for race relations ever. Note, though, that the book is not about 1919 in general (as the sub-title implies), but very much about the Arkansas incident.

I don't give out 5 stars very often. This book definitely deserved it.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Riveting--and timely 17 July 2008
By book lover - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This book is heartrending but also uplifting. It brings into focus a national hero, Scipio Jones, who was born a slave but rose to prominence. Now forgotten, he brought about--through his deft legal work--changes in our national law that we would do well to remember now in these days when habeous corpus seems to have gone by the wayside. Truly this book can be seen as examining the changes in our law that made it possible for the civil rights movement to emerge. It really is a great book and a great read. It can be hard to get through some of the gripping--but painful--accounts of the killings in the beginning of the book--but the end is worth it.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Warning From History 7 Oct 2010
By R. L. Huff - Published on
This book well-deserves the nine great reviews above (the one-star being a product complaint, whose author is forced to admit "it's a great book.")

That said, Mr. Whitaker has done a superb job recreating a time and place that has been conveniently forgotten by modern Americans, and for this reason is in danger of being foisted upon us again by those who don't know how and why the constitutional safeguards we enjoy came to be. Or, more cynically, those who would "roll back" the "liberal handcuffs" of due process, Federal interpretation of habeas corpus, and national enforcement of the Bill of Rights know exactly what they're about and *want* to return American society to Elaine, Arkansas, in 1919.

And for all the racism displayed in these events, the treatment meted out to unionizing sharecroppers who dared challenge their status quo was not much worse than that dished out to others of the period: striking coal miners in West Virginia, who fought pitched battles with state militia; steel strikers in the Northeast; Sacco and Vanzetti, of course. The violence of this period is simply stunning - the events in Elaine were not some mere aberration of Southern culture or history but in the middle of the American mainstream.

Highly recommended (despite the obscure title), not only for what it says about America's past but - if certain forces in the US have their way - its future.
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