Robert Whitaker notes in his book “On the Laps of Gods: The Red Summer of 1919 and the Struggle for Justice That Remade a Nation,” that in the aftermath of the Civil War, Congress had an opportunity to reconstruct this nation by legislating the incorporation of African-Americans as full and equal citizens. But a lack of support for laws passed by a Reconstruction-oriented Congress, and states’ rights decisions upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, created a pathway for white racists to maintain control over the Black population–and to even murder African-Americans, if need be, in order to hold onto power.
Whitaker’s “On the Laps of Gods” looks at the specific case of a race riot that took place on Sept. 30, 1919, in Hoop Spur, Ark. (This riot has come to be known as the Elaine Race Riot or the Elaine Massacre, even though the fighting actually took place in Hoop Spur.) Whites in the area claimed that Black sharecroppers had basically become uppity: They claimed that Blacks were attending a meeting where they were putting together plans to attack the area’s whites. Local whites found out, though, and after a white police officer was killed, and another policeman and white civilian were wounded, whites said they were forced to attack local Blacks to basically save themselves.
The facts that have come down through history, however, show that local African-Americans were not, in fact, organizing to attack whites. They were actually getting together because they wanted to form a union. As sharecroppers, they all lived on land owned by whites and paid a large portion of their crop proceeds to the landowners.
“Although they were regularly kept in debt,” Whitaker writes, “the Hoop Spur sharecroppers would usually return to their cabins with $50 to $100 in their pockets, as the landowners–most of whom lived in Helena–typically gave their tenants half of the money from the sale of the cotton seed. The landowners hoped this small amount of cash would suffice to keep the sharecroppers around until the following spring.”
When cotton prices rose, the share of income going to sharecroppers should have as well. It didn’t, and some 100 Black sharecroppers in Arkansas met in a little church in Elaine to form the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America.
Organized by African-Americans who believed in the self-help teachings of Booker T. Washington, the Progressive Farmers and Household Union had been officially incorporated and registered with the county clerk. Many local whites knew that the sharecroppers were forming a union, and they were not interested in seeing it succeed.
Claiming that local Blacks were only organizing because they wanted to attack whites was the best way to halt the union–and the perfect rationale for why Blacks had to be slaughtered.
Aside from the compelling tale of the Elaine Race Riot, what’s particularly important is that the author takes a majority of the second half of the book to profile the work of Scipio Africanus Jones. Jones was born enslaved in Tulip, Ark., and was able to become a respected attorney among both Blacks and whites in Little Rock, the state capital. As the attorney being paid by the NAACP to represent the 12 African-American men who faced the death penalty following the Elaine Race Riot trials, it was Jones who got the case–officially known as Moore v. Dempsey, 261 US 86 (1923)–heard before the U.S. Supreme Court. The court’s decision in Moore v. Dempsey was widely viewed as a major victory in constitutional law. And because it strengthened the 14th Amendment, this case was also a success because it provided a viable means for protecting the lives of African-Americans.
Whitaker’s “On the Laps of Gods” is a haunting and inspiring look at the lives African-Americans were forced to endure when they remained in isolated and rural areas at the mercy of their former enslavers. It demonstrates that even at their most vulnerable, African-Americans constantly made the effort to better their lives–it sometimes cost them their lives, but they were constantly striving to create a place for themselves in the United States.