Don’t Forget What You Look Like 

On a hot, sunny day in late June, 2021 we headed from Memphis down into Tunica County, Mississippi, where we crossed the Mississippi River and drove into Helena, Arkansas, the Phillips County Seat. Our GPS pointed us to the Courthouse, standing just shy of the levee. But on the courthouse square just steps from this edifice,  we stumbled upon a memorial meant to reflect the features of a church. The centerpiece was a 14,000-pound granite slab resembling an altar. The engraving read: “Dedicated to those known and unknown who lost their lives in the Elaine Massacre.”

Once I remember, I must act.

This visit was part of a 14-state summer road trip we undertook between late May and mid-July. We had been in the Mississippi Delta for about a week, heading out each day from our Airbnb farm stay 122 miles south of Memphis, to explore the dozens of counties in the Delta regions of Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas. According to our research, these are places that rank among the most disadvantaged in the nation. On our final day we returned to Memphis to catch a flight home but had just enough time to investigate the northernmost Delta counties in Mississippi and Arkansas. Here we learned that Phillips County was the site of one the most violent acts of retribution by whites against Black Americans in the history of our nation.

A quick Google search revealed that on the evening of September 30, 1919, roughly 200 Black farmers gathered in the Hoop Spur Church near the town of Elaine for a meeting of the Progressive Farmers and Household Union. At about 11:00 p.m., as they discussed how to negotiate with their white landlords for fair pay, cars carrying armed whites pulled up outside. Shots were fired into the church and then returned, according to eyewitnesses, leaving one of the white men injured and the other dead.

As rumors spread of an impending race war, a white mob amassed and descended on the county. They were joined by more than 500 soldiers from nearby Camp Pike, sent by Governor Charles Hillman Brough, who personally accompanied the troops with orders to “round up” the “heavily armed [Blacks]” and “shoot to kill any [Black Americans] who refused to surrender immediately.” Accounts indicate they slaughtered not only men, but any women and children unfortunate enough to be caught in the crossfire.

Choosing to forget is acting to perpetuate the past.

More than 100 Black Americans were hauled off to jail where many were beaten and tortured. The first 12 tried faced charges ranging from murder to nightriding, known thereafter as the Elaine Twelve. All were sentenced to the electric chair by an all-white jury after just minutes of deliberation. Their appeal would eventually work its way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, who would vote to overturn the convictions by a vote of six to two.

For years, the story that was told by whites about these events was patently false—it was a “‘planned insurrection’; Blacks folks were out to kill white people; hardly anyone died; order was quickly restored.” But journalist Ida B. Wells, who secretly interviewed members of the Elaine Twelve while they were imprisoned, provided another account of the events in Phillips County, labeling them an “orgy of bloodshed.”

Research by the Equal Justice Initiative documented 245 Black killings by white mob action in Phillips County during the Elaine Massacre—more documented lynchings than any other county in the United States. It wasn’t until September 29, 2019 when the memorial was dedicated in remembrance of the many who were slaughtered—exactly 100 years after the first Black victims of the Elaine Massacre were slain—that the historical narrative was finally set right in this community. After a century of willful forgetting, at least some of the citizens of this place had the courage to remember.

This Fall, my mind has repeatedly returned to that edifice on the courthouse square as I’ve marveled again and again the strength of our desire to turn away from something shameful, to willfully forget. But we cannot, for to do so is to ensure that we will only repeat the past in different form. Thus, it is vital that parents teach our children to remember at the supper table and that teachers do so in school. It is crucial that clergy teach their congregants to remember from the pulpit. It is imperative that Christians encourage each other to remember—it is a fundamental tenet of our faith that forgiveness and healing can only come from repentance. You may ask, how am I responsible for the murderous acts of a white mob in Arkansas over a century ago? Choosing to forget is acting to perpetuate the past. Insofar that we willfully forget, the answer is yes—we are perpetrators ourselves.

Looking ugliness in the face is painful. To be honest, I hate it. “Please”—I find myself saying—“can’t I just turn away?” But it gets worse, because as a person of faith, I know that once I remember, I must act. As the Apostle James instructed: “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.” (James 1:23-25, NIV)

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