On Sept. 30, 1919, African American farmers and sharecroppers met in Elaine, Arkansas to begin organizing a chapter of the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America. 54 years after the abolition of slavery, they sought respect and a fair price for their cotton. The Encyclopedia of Arkansas describes this radical move in unequivocal terms: “Unions such as the Progressive Farmers represented a threat not only to the tenet of white supremacy but also to the basic concepts of capitalism.” The peaceful meeting was attacked and in the ensuing struggle a white man was killed. White vigilantes and Federal troops swept in almost immediately, killing at least 100 African Americans over the course of the next three days. Hundreds of African Americans were arrested for inciting a riot, and twelve of them were sentenced to death. The NAACP under the leadership of Walter Francis White arrived to investigate the case and defend the Elaine 12. The Supreme Court vacated six of the sentences. The other six men, having gone to prison pleading lesser charges, were later furloughed by the governor and released secretly, to prevent lynching. No one was executed.
Elaine, AK, was also the town from which the writer Richard Wright and his family had to flee two years earlier when whites murdered his uncle, essentially for being a successful businessman, and confiscated his property: “Uncle Hoskins had simply been plucked from our midst and we, figuratively, had fallen on our faces to avoid looking into that white-hot face of terror that we knew loomed somewhere above us. This was as close as white terror had ever come to me and my mind reeled. Why had we not fought back, I asked my mother, and the fear that was in her made her slap me into silence.” //Ned Stuckey-French with a nod to the Zinn Education Project