In this season of memoirs and tell-alls, by sheer coincidence two of the most poignant and honest are written by a couple of aging old boys from Lee County, Ark., one Black, the other white, but, unlike the current best-selling chronicles, neither tells us a thing, good or bad, about Donald J. Trump.
At least directly.
Olly Neal, now 79, and Grif Stockley, 76, actually drop not even a passing mention of Trump into their books, although he has been trying for nearly four years to reshape America in the mode idealized by the old general whose towering statue adorns the square of their hometown and after whom their county is named. Their stories spring altogether from the racially stratified social order that was defended and then bequeathed by the general, which made the white author a lifetime child of privilege and the other its prey, and both of them rebels.
Neal’s memoir, “Outspoken,” recounts how the angry grandson of a slave literally terrified the white establishment around 1970 by merely starting a poor people’s medical clinic in the heart of the Delta, down the street from the Lee monument, and, after having his experiment saved by a spunky new governor named Dale Bumpers, went on years later to become a distinguished state judge. “Hypogrif in Bubbaville” is Stockley’s story of his painful search for the legacy of his beloved parents and beyond and of coming to terms with the advantages that he figures he had enjoyed all his life at the expense of people like Olly Neal, the Black boy down the road that he apparently never met.
The lanky Black boy and the short white kid were perpetual screwups, according to their own shockingly frank accounts, but both became lawyers fighting for poor people and icons of the civil rights and legal justice movements in Arkansas. Although told by a Memphis professor that he could not write and shouldn’t try, Stockley penned six legal mysteries for Simon & Schuster about the conquests of his conflicted lawyer-hero Gideon Page before launching into his real life’s work, the real and sordid history of race in Arkansas.
Nearly 25 years before Neal and Stockley were born, perhaps the single most unspeakable racial violence in American history — aside, of course, from the Civil War — occurred 20 miles down the road from their homes in Marianna, the Elaine Race Massacre of October 1919. Hundreds of innocent Black men, women and children were murdered by law-enforcement bands and federal soldiers fresh from the Second Battle of the Marne in France because a few Black men dared to organize a union to get a better shake from the landowners for the crops the poor men and their wives and children produced. I mean “unspeakable” literally because the day after the slaughter white leaders put a notice in the Helena World that people should forever refrain from any discussion of the events beyond the official white account of what had happened. That silence would prevail for 80 years until Stockley went back home to see what he could unearth about a tragedy that was the subject of only muted references at home and none at all in school. His first history, “Blood in Their Eyes,” followed in 2001.
Were much known about it, the Elaine Massacre would be the iconic inspiration for the national Black Lives Matter movement, which suddenly transformed politics and public dialogue in 2020 after a century and a half of systematic violence against Blacks by lawmen across the nation. Trump may be mistaken, but he hopes the protests and white reaction will save him in two months in a race that is not going his way.
Olly Neal doesn’t deal at all with the massacre in “Outspoken” because he has plenty of personal battles to recount, and Stockley mentions it only in passing because his sainted forebears at least did not seem to have taken a role in that horrific undertaking, which was down the road a ways at Helena, Elaine and the intervening cotton fields and canebreaks. Stockley’s ancestors, he found, were disciples of the Lost Cause and white supremacy — his scholarly grandma Effie and the Daughters of the Confederacy put up the Lee monument on the square and she eloquently eulogized its significance — but they probably would have considered the massacre needless violence.
Stockley had written voluminously about the killings after tracking down trial transcripts, affidavits and military records that furnished a few firsthand accounts of the troubles, including the shocking memory 50 years later of the prosecutor who had sent scores of Black men to prison for crimes they didn’t commit and a dozen to wait for electrocution. “Blood in Their Eyes” set off a scramble by scholars to uncover more details about the massacre and its causes. It spurred Stockley on to a new career, race historian. Among his works, largely unread by the general public, are the massive “Ruled by Race,” about Black-white relations in Arkansas from slavery to 2000, and “Black Boys Burning,” about the fire in the so-called Negro Boys Industrial School south of Little Rock that killed 21 outcast children who labored on the state farm at Wrightsville and were locked for the night inside a rundown shack where they spent their time away from toil. We were writing about the tragedy, which was described as “unfortunate,” when I arrived to write for the Arkansas Gazette in 1960. Stockley wrote what we failed to report.
Although it is written with customary scholarly detachment, “Blood in Their Eyes” is one of the most riveting and sickening books that people will never read. Some attention has been given to the massacre in the past year on the occasion of its 100th anniversary, but all that is happening in the burning summer of an election year should earn an audience for it and for the memoirs of two men who were raised in its shadow. So, from Griffin Jasper Stockley Jr.’s research, my attenuated account:
In the “Red Summer” of 1919, a rising labor movement and the return of Black veterans to their old drudgery produced riots and conflicts with lawmen in a number of Midwestern cities and also the farming hamlets of Phillips County. A Black veteran named Robert Lee Hill began organizing the Progressive Farmers and Household Union to demand higher reimbursement for their crops and better wages for household work. Planters, businessmen and political leaders — all white — were in turmoil. The Business Men’s League of Phillips County engaged the sheriff to monitor the unionists. When Black unionists gathered late on a Tuesday night at a little colored church in the woods at Hoop Spur, near Elaine, the sheriff sent two men — a deputy and a Rock Island Railroad agent — out to check on it a little before midnight. To find the church, they took along a Black trusty at the jail known as Kid Collins.
The story the sheriff gave was that the men were out looking for a bootlegger named Clem — at midnight? — when they accidentally drove upon the meeting. According to Kid Collins later, the two white men fired into the church and shots were returned in the darkness. The deputy was shot in the neck and the railroad man, though wounded, left the dying deputy and fled back to town with the trusty. The call went out during the night that a massive Black insurrection was underway and posses were needed. Hundreds of armed men from across the river and up and down the Delta came rolling into Helena and Elaine to be deputized and hunt down the murderous Negroes. They swarmed the towns and countryside, shooting men, women and children wherever they found them — in their homes, fields and canebrakes. A Black Helena dentist and his three brothers were returning from a hunting trip and, when they resisted capture by vigilantes, were shot to death and left on the road. Scores were rounded up and locked in temporary stockades, where they were tortured and made to concoct stories about a massive plot to kill all the white people and take their land and homes.
Local leaders called Governor Brough at the Capitol and told him of a massive insurrection and of heavy fighting between the deputized vigilantes and Blacks. Brough telegraphed Washington and the Wilson administration instantly sent six rifle companies — 583 war veterans armed with 10 machine guns — by train from Camp Pike in Little Rock to Elaine and Helena. The excited governor joined them. The soldiers, told that Blacks were out to kill all whites, joined the mayhem. Though the commander’s official reports told of no killings by the soldiers, other reports told a different story. A subordinate officer wrote that he saw soldiers kill about 20 Black men who tried to run away.
It was the kind of armed forces mission that Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Trump would champion a century later to take down protesting Blacks and their sympathizers.
John Elvis Miller, the local prosecuting attorney who dispatched scores of Black men to prison and used the achievement to catapult himself into the U.S. House of Representatives, the U.S. Senate and a federal judgeship, told a far different story 57 years later in a recorded interview with a history professor at the University of Arkansas. He said the Blacks were victims of peonage and had valid grievances against the planters and businessmen.
As for the soldiers, whom he confused with the National Guard, Miller said that when the train loaded with soldiers, the governor and reporters from the Little Rock newspapers pulled into town they were greeted by jubilant Blacks who thought the troops came to protect them from the vigilantes. One of them fired a gun into the sky.
“… [T]he national guard fired on them and they must have killed 100 niggers right there,” the old judge said. “That is what happened. There wasn’t a soldier hit or anything.”
All the newspapers, including the Arkansas Gazette and Arkansas Democrat, stuck with the official story that Blacks rioted in a campaign to wipe out the white population and had to be put down by honorable men. But a revered longtime reporter for the Gazette and admirer of racist politicians wrote in a weird little book a few years later — but never in his newspaper — that the soldiers, deputies and vigilantes had killed 856 Blacks. He called it “the blackest day ever written by blood or bayonet in the history of Arkansas.”
Five white men died, though two apparently by the friendly fire of troops or vigilantes. No proof was ever tendered about who killed them, but 12 Black men were sentenced to the electric chair, only to have their cases bounce back and forth for years among state and federal courts until the U.S. Supreme Court exonerated them in a brilliant opinion by Oliver Wendell Holmes. When two key witnesses who participated in the capture and questioning of the men changed their stories two years after the first trials and told graphically of bestial torture and unprovoked killings, the state’s case collapsed and all 12 men went free.
The papers never changed their stories. My beloved Gazette bitterly demanded the summary execution of all the Black scoundrels. Forty years later, it would be honored and nearly put out of business for criticizing a segregationist governor’s use of his militia to prevent Black children from attending a white high school.