Several years ago I went to Montgomery, Alabama with several others from St. Dunstan’s to visit the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, also known as the lynching memorial. The memorial is made up of long columns, many suspended from the ceiling (as if they are being lynched). There is a column for every county in the country in which lynchings occurred, with the names of the dead engraved on each one.
Visiting the memorial is a sobering experience. I was slowly walking through the columns alone when a docent approached me. “Do you know which of these is the heaviest?” she asked. It was a puzzling question because the columns are exactly the same size and weight. “Let me show you,” she said, then led me to the column for Phillips County, Arkansas. There are names engraved on that column, but there is also this: “On October 1, 1919, at least 229 unknown individuals were lynched during the Elaine Massacre.”
I consider myself a fairly well educated person, and I know a lot about the history of Civil Rights in this country, but I had never heard of the Elaine Massacre. Since that day I have asked many people, including American history teachers, if they have heard of it. Not a single person has; just as until recently few people knew of the Tulsa Racial Massacre, and many who have lived in Atlanta all their lives know nothing about the 1906 Racial Massacre here.
The Elaine Massacre was set off after a group of black sharecroppers gathered in a church to discuss organizing to demand a greater share of the profits of the crops they grew. That meeting was interrupted by a group of whites who began shooting into the church. The shots were returned and a white man was killed. The following day the governor of Arkansas ordered 500 soldiers into Phillips County. They and hundreds of white vigilantes stormed the black community, slaughtering everyone they saw — men, women, and children.
No one knows exactly how many people died. Only a few names of the dead are known, including Leroy Johnson, who had just been released from a nine-month stay in the hospital recovering from injuries he received in the trenches of France, fighting for this country in World War One. He was pulled from a train and shot along with his three brothers.
As with most racial massacres and lynchings, no white people were ever charged with any of the murders.
I’ve been thinking about the Elaine Massacre this week because of the coverage of the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa Racial Massacre, another dark chapter in our country’s mostly hidden history. I’ve thought about how far we’ve come since those days, and how far we still have to go. Of course much has changed for the better. But racism is still deeply embedded in the very infrastructure of our society. Our Black brothers and sisters still must live with fear that is foreign to most white Americans. And the gains for which so many have fought, and died, can not be taken for granted.
I don’t think it is a coincidence that as more of our history is being brought to light — like the racial massacres that occurred in many cities — that there is now a growing movement to prevent schools from teaching that history. It is also not a coincidence that record turnout of minority voters in 2020 has led many state legislatures, including ours, to enact voter suppression laws aimed at making it harder for minorities to vote.
The fact is that from almost the beginning of European settlers to this land, Black lives have mattered less than white ones. It was true through slavery, it was true through segregation and lynchings and Jim Crow laws, and it is sadly still true today. Yes, we have made strides, but the growing number of white supremacists (whether in militia groups or legislatures) show us how far we still have to go.
As Christians we must affirm through our words and deeds that Black lives do matter — not more than, but as much as any other lives. That is a gospel proclamation, one that our baptismal covenant calls us to live out.
I leave you these words engraved on a wall in the Peace and Justice Memorial:
For the hanged and beaten, for the shot, drowned, and burned, for the tortured, tormented, and terrorized, for those abandoned by the rule of law, We will remember With hope because hopelessness is the enemy of justice, with courage because peace requires bravery, with persistence because justice is a constant struggle, with faith because we shall overcome.