The Elaine race riot, also called the Elaine massacre, began on September 30–October 1, 1919 at Hoop Spur in the vicinity of Elaine in rural Phillips County, Arkansas. With an estimated 100 to 237 blacks killed, along with five white men, it is considered the deadliest race riot in the state and one of the deadliest racial conflicts in all of United States history.
(Because of the widespread white mob attacks on blacks during these days, in 2015 the Equal Justice Initiative of Mobile, Alabama classified the black deaths as lynchings in their report on lynchings in the United States, but this is not the consensus of historians.)
Located in the Arkansas Delta, the county had been developed for cotton plantations, and was worked by African-American slaves. In the early 20th century the population was still overwhelmingly black, as most freedmen and their descendants had stayed as farm workers and sharecroppers. African Americans outnumbered whites in the area around Elaine by a ten-to-one ratio, and by three-to-one in the county overall. White landowners controlled the economic power, selling cotton on their own schedule, running high-priced plantation stores where farmers had to buy seed and supplies, and failing to itemize their settlement of accounts with sharecroppers.
The Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America had organized chapters in the Elaine area in 1918-19. On September 29, representatives met with about 100 black farmers at a church near Elaine to discuss how to obtain fairer settlements. Whites had resisted union organizing by the farmers and often spied on or disrupted such meetings. In a confrontation at the church, two whites were shot, one fatally. The county sheriff organized a posse and whites gathered to put down what was rumored as a “black insurrection”. Other whites entered Phillips County to join the action, making a mob of 500 to 1000 whites. They attacked blacks on sight across the county. The governor called in 500 federal troops, who arrested nearly 260 blacks and were accused of killing some. Over a three-day period, five white men were killed and an estimated 100-240 blacks, with some estimates of more than 800 blacks killed. The events have been subject to debate, especially the total of black deaths.
The only men prosecuted for these events were 122 African Americans, with 73 charged with murder. Twelve were quickly convicted and sentenced to death by all-white juries for murder of the white deputy at the church. Others were convicted of lesser charges and sentenced to prison. During appeals, the death penalty cases were separated. Six convictions (known as the Ware defendants) were overturned at the state level for technical trial details. These six defendants were retried in 1920 and convicted again, but on appeal the State Supreme Court overturned the verdicts, based on violations of the Due Process Clause and the Civil Rights Act of 1875, due to exclusion of blacks from the juries. The lower courts failed to retry the men within the two years required by Arkansas law, and the defense finally gained their release in 1923.
The six other death penalty cases (known as Moore et al.) ultimately reached the United States Supreme Court. The Court overturned the convictions in the Moore v. Dempsey (1923) ruling. Grounds were the failure of the trial court to provide due process under the Fourteenth Amendment, as the trials had been dominated by adverse publicity and the presence of armed white mobs threatening the jury. This was a critical precedent for the “Supreme Court‘s strengthening of the requirements the Due Process Clause imposes on the conduct of state criminal trials.”
The NAACP assisted the defendants in the appeals process, raising money to hire a defense team, which it helped direct. When the cases were remanded to the state court, the six ‘Moore’ defendants settled with the lower court on lesser charges and were sentenced to time already served. Governor Thomas Chipman McRae freed these six men in 1925 in the closing days of his administration. The NAACP helped them leave the state safely.