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