Why a monument marking the 100-year anniversary of a race massacre injures rather than heals

A lot can change in a century. What makes the centennial of the Elaine Race Massacre of 1919 particularly painful is that not nearly enough has changed concerning racial injustice, capitalism, hypocrisy and white supremacy in Phillips County, Arkansas, in its county seat of Helena and in the farming community of Elaine located 25 miles southwest of Helena.

A century ago, black people in and near Elaine organized a union to bargain collectively for better prices for their cotton. The white people who ran business, politics, and government in Phillips County viewed that action as threatening to their dominance over people whose grandparents had been forced to live and work as slaves. White “posses” from Helena, joined by hundreds of white vigilantes from Arkansas and Mississippi and federal troops from Camp Pike near Little Rock, rampaged through southern Phillips County, slaughtering hundreds of black men, women and children.

None of the murderers was arrested and prosecuted. Instead, white civic, business, political and religious leaders commended themselves for not lynching black people whom they falsely accused of plotting an “insurrection” to murder white people.

Helena did nothing to help the survivors of the Elaine Race Massacre of 1919 and has done precious little to help their descendants in the last century. Yet on Sept. 29 white leaders and their black supporters in Helena will “dedicate” a monument, across from the courthouse where justice was not served, on ground that also hosts a tribute to seven Confederate generals. This “memorial,” they say, “honors those who died and offers a permanent place to mourn the lives taken by the tragedy.”

Instead, the monument insults the black working people of Elaine whose ancestors died by gunfire deployed to defend white supremacy.

“Meanwhile, white supremacist domestic terrorists proceed apace.”

In 2019 a monument in Helena may attract sightseers, enriching a few business owners there with tourist money. It may help to assuage the guilt carried by descendants of the plantation elite and the mob, who through distance and education have come to rue their forebears’ participation in the deadliest massacre of black people in the history of Arkansas, if not the entire United States.

But it will not absolve the massacre. It will not conceal 100 years of active deceit by Helena business, civic and religious leaders concerning the armed offensive waged against black farm workers in 1919. A sham monument in Helena will never represent the self-determined resolve of the massacre’s descendants to honor their dead and set the historical record straight. The Helena monument will not help Elaine to heal.

Helena residents could have supported a call for state and federal investigations into the Elaine Race Massacre, probes that are long overdue. Much of the raw history of the massacre remains unclear: How many were killed? What were their names? What became of their bodies? Who fled Phillips County and Arkansas in the wake of the violence? Whose land was grabbed? Whose lives and livelihoods suffered for generations after 1919? The money spent to erect the monument could have been dedicated to funding these inquiries.

The Arkansas Department of Education could have developed materials to teach future generations about the Elaine Race Massacre.

Faith leaders in Helena could have called on Helena leaders to issue a formal apology for the race massacre.

The Arkansas Department of Health could have worked with Elaine residents and Phillips County leaders to provide healthcare resources to surviving descendants of the race massacre.

State and federal elected officials from the Arkansas Delta could have lobbied for governmental appropriations to Elaine for community and economic development.

“The monument insults the black working people of Elaine whose ancestors died by gunfire deployed to defend white supremacy.”

The money spent to erect the monument could have been donated to the Elaine Legacy Center, which works in concert with several nonprofits to confront transgenerational trauma and to end poverty in south Phillips and north Desha counties within 10 years. (In Elaine, 77 percent of black residents live below the poverty line, as do 16 percent of whites.)

Instead, none of these things happened. Meanwhile, white supremacist domestic terrorists proceed apace. During the night of Aug. 21 they hacked down a slender willow tree planted in Elaine several months ago as a “Living Memorial” to those who lost their lives in the Elaine Race Massacre.

Descendants of the 1919 massacre plan to replant the memorial tree this winter. Meanwhile, on the afternoon of Sept. 29, as part of a weekend of commemoration – and while Helena “dedicates” its pricey slab of granite and marble – residents of Elaine will gather in the town’s humble Old Elementary School cafeteria to mark the 100th anniversary of the Elaine Race Massacre.

We intend to stand with them – on the right side of history, against white supremacy, on the long path toward genuine healing and reconciliation. We want to be allies with people from Elaine and other places where white supremacy has caused harm. We believe that when people who believe in justice act as allies with people who have been harmed by white supremacy, greed and hypocrisy, we can make a difference. We can help change life for the better for people in Elaine and other places where white supremacy has caused personal, social and moral inequities, pain and scars. We can make a difference.

We hope you will share our commitment and actively join the struggle of wounded people for justice, mercy and deliverance wherever you live and with the people who have experienced racial injustice.

Related commentary:

Wendell Griffen | A ‘monument’ to black people massacred 100 years ago in Arkansas reeks of the hypocrisy Jesus condemned

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