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Society’s acceptance of violence a heavy legacy

One hundred and one years ago in Phillips County, Arkansas, in the flat Mississippi Delta downstream from Memphis, African-American sharecroppers met with union organizers.

Aware they were risking the fury of landowners, they planned the meeting in strict secrecy, scheduling it for 10 pm at a remote plank church. Armed guards were posted outside.

But a black trusty at the local jail alerted authorities. Two white men, a deputy sheriff and a railroad detective, drove to the church and shot it up. They didn’t suspect the presence of the guards, who fired back.

The railroad detective was killed. Word quickly spread. Armed white men poured into the region from all over the Delta. Contemporary newspapers estimated the number of vigilantes at 600 to 1000. Reprisal killings began at once. The governor begged Washington to send in troops, and after a day’s delay the Army dispatched five hundred regular soldiers. But that only accelerated the killing.

A black dentist who practiced in Elaine, the nearest town of any size, returned from a hunting trip with his three brothers. Suspecting nothing, they drove into town and were “literally shot to pieces,” according to the NAACP’s newspaper The Crisis.

I’ve drawn these details from lawyer Grif Stockley’s “Blood in their Eyes: The Elaine Race Massacres of 1919.” While numerous eyewitnesses described bodies lying in the streets and the canebrakes, and perpetrators afterward bragged about the tortures they inflicted, the exact number of victims is unknown. A white man writing in 1925, whose open racism gave him no reason to exaggerate the suffering of African-Americans, said 856 blacks were killed. Most historians put the number much lower, with 237 a consensus estimate.

As soon as the shooting stopped, an all-white grand jury – there wasn’t any other kind in Phillips County – indicted 122 African-Americans for planning an armed uprising. In essence, the black people of Phillips County were accused of conspiring to do to whites what the whites actually did to them. Scores were imprisoned. Twelve were sentenced to death. One trial, which resulted in death sentences for six men, lasted just 45 minutes.

Their case, eventually known as Moore v. Dempsey, made legal history. Fifty-five years after the ratification of the 14th Amendment, the United States Supreme Court for the first time allowed it to be used to protect the civil rights of black defendants. The justices granted the condemned men’s petitions for habeas corpus, ordering new trials. In the years that followed, habeas corpus became a relief valve mechanism for victims of racial injustice, allowing a tiny percentage to obtain legal redress.

The marauding mass murderers of Phillips County didn’t think of themselves as criminals, even as they shot unresisting black people in their homes. On the contrary, they saw themselves as restoring order, which in the Arkansas of their day meant a strict social hierarchy based on race.

I was reminded of the Arkansas pogrom by the op-ed piece that the New York Times’ editorial board recently solicited from Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, published online and then disavowed in a cascade of bad decisions.

The Times gave the op-ed a stirring headline: “Send in the Troops.” In it, Cotton imagined a nationwide uprising of violent anti-fascist forces every bit as lurid as the insurrection conjured up by the Phillips County fantasists. He urged exactly the same remedy: “an overwhelming show of force” by the United States military against American citizens.

Of course, a show of force means little unless accompanied by the political will to use it. On Twitter, Cotton demanded “no quarter for … anarchists,” that is, summary execution for adherents of a political philosophy. He demanded the same treatment for “insurrectionists,… rioters, and looters.”

Cotton’s calls for violence, set against the historical backdrop of anti-black violence in his native state, reveal an element too often missing from more general discussions of violence in our society. Interpersonal violence isn’t disorder. On the contrary, it tells us who’s in charge.

Whenever a horrible act of violence occurs, somebody somewhere is bound to call it “senseless.” But violence is never senseless from the perpetrator’s point of view. Otherwise they wouldn’t do it. There is always a reason. This remains true whether society views the violence as criminal or (as in Arkansas, a century ago) laudatory.

A society’s readiness to regard violence as laudatory goes a long way toward explaining the frequency with which its citizens engage in it. And, no surprise, Arkansas remains one of the most violent states to this day.

But right alongside it in any ranking of the top 10 most violent states is New Mexico.

One question New Mexicans need to answer, and to which this column will occasionally return, is why our crime statistics bracket us with the states of the South, with which we otherwise seem to have so little in common. Why aren’t we more like our comparatively peaceful neighbors Colorado, Texas and Arizona?

Joel Jacobsen is an author who in 2015 retired from a 29-year legal career. If there are topics you would like to see covered in future columns, please write him at