The buzz about “On the Laps of Gods: The Red Summer of 1919 and the Struggle for Justice that Remade a Nation,” (Crown Publishers, hardcover, $24.95) began early when the author Robert Whitaker won the 2007 J. Anthony Lukas 2007 Work-in-Progress Award. On the cover of the advance reviewer’s copy, noted scholar Cornel West writes, “Robert Whitaker unearths a dark historical event in a creative and powerful way.”
In fact, the book is a retelling of the Elaine Massacres of 1919, which I wrote about in 2001. Published by the University of Arkansas Press, “Blood in Their Eyes: The Elaine Race Massacres of 1919,” won a Certificate of Commendation from the American State and Local History Association. Several others have also written on the subject.
Still, I looked forward to reading “On the Laps of Gods” in the hopes of finding that another author had found new evidence that confirmed my own research and conclusion that a massacre of African Americans had taken place. Though I found new sources of information, much of the importance of “Blood in Their Eyes” is found in its distinctly different interpretation of primary evidence that a number of writers had already reviewed.
Until my book, other writers had essentially found that the evidence was too conflicting to make a judgment as to what had occurred in Phillips County. As I quoted Dr. Jeannie M. Whayne, history professor at the University of Arkansas, “Historians, struggling with a mass of rich but contradictory and even tainted evidence, have failed to arrive at a common narrative of events.”
In “Blood in Their Eyes,” I acknowledged relying on Richard Cortner’s work, “A Mob Intent on Death: The NAACP and the Arkansas Riot Cases,” stating that his research “had set the curve for those to follow.”
Whitaker doesn’t extend the same courtesy. Whitaker failed to even give the full title of my book in his bibliography, referring to it only as Blood in Their Eyes. “On the Laps” doesn’t include another single reference to my work (except in the notes where he relies on the research material that I donated to the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies), which had already reached the same conclusions on much of the same evidence.
Besides failing to acknowledge that he has built his work on the backs of other authors, Whitaker also makes claims that gravely distort the historical record.
In his telling of the events, George W. Murphy, who even at the age of 79 was still regarded as one of the best criminal defense attorneys in the state, was basically Scipio Jones’ sidekick. The contributions of Murphy’s partner, Edgar McHaney, are mostly ignored.
It was McHaney who made the oral argument to the Arkansas Supreme Court in the effort to delay the executions; it was McHaney who argued the case at the hearings in Lee County that ultimately won the release of six of the defendants. In his effort to create a mythical civil rights hero, Whitaker also all but ignores Moorfield Story, the blue-blooded former NAACP board chairman, who argued and won the case of Moore v. Dempsey with Ulysses Bratton before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Whitaker’s approach mars what is otherwise an important book about 1919 and the events in Phillips County. Building on the research of others, he clarifies and corrects a number of points and provides much more context and detail than any book written before on the massacre in Phillips County. Ultimately, he concludes that there was a massacre, but he provides no further evidence of the participation of the hundreds of whites who came into Phillips County. He finds further second-hand evidence of the soldiers’ participation but no smoking gun and thus adds nothing about the incident that we did not already know before.
Grif Stockley heads the Ruled by Race Project at the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies.