"We Have Just Begun": Black Organizing and White Response in the Arkansas Delta, 1919
By KIERAN TAYLOR
ON THE LAST NIGHT OF SEPTEMBER 1919, Phillips County deputy sheriff Charles Pratt and two assistants traveled twenty miles south out of Helena, Arkansas, in apparent pursuit of a bootlegger. Shortly after stopping -- reportedly to repair a flat tire -- in front of a small church at Hoop Spur, just north of the town of Elaine, a shot rang out, followed quickly by a volley of gunfire. Inside the church, a group of black farmers was meeting to consider plans to demand a better price for their cotton and a fairer settlement from their landlords. Many had recently joined the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America, a local group that had organized chapters of black workers in several Phillips County communities. Interrupted in their discussions by the shooting and believing their union to be under attack, the men hastened to the windows, loaded their weapons and joined the fray (1).
Kieran Taylor is assistant editor at the Martin Luther King, Jr., Papers Project at Stanford University.
(1) According to the official version, either someone within the church or the armed guards posted outside the meeting fired on Pratt and his deputies. Union members later maintained that Pratt had shot into the church intending to provoke a larger conflict. For the best accounts of the Elaine riot, see Arthur Waskow, From Race Riot to Sit-In, 1919 and the1960s: A Study in the Connection between Conflict and Violence (Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, 1966); B. Boren McCool, Union, Reaction, and Riot: A Biography of a Rural Race Riot (Memphis: Memphis State University, 1970); O. A. Rogers, "The Elaine Race Riots of 1919," Arkansas Historical Quarterly 19 (Summer 1960): 142-150. For a defense of the white response, see J. W. Butts and Dorothy James, "The Underlying Causes of the Elaine Riot of 1919" Arkansas Historical Quarterly 20 (Spring 1961): 95-104.