Labor Day And The Elaine Massacre Of 1919

Labor Day And The Elaine Massacre Of 1919 August 26, 2019

September 30th marks the 100th anniversary of the Elaine Massacre, often characterized as the most deadly racial confrontation in Arkansas history, and perhaps the bloodiest post-Civil War racial (and labor) conflict in the United States.

The massacre certainly was racially motivated. African-American sharecroppers had gathered at a church in Hoop Spur, three miles north of Elaine, working to obtain better payment for their cotton crops. White plantation owners. Black sharecroppers. This was the racial landscape in Jim Crow America.

What we should additionally note on this Labor Day weekend is the labor and organizing intersection. The sharecroppers were black, certainly. The plantation owners were white. But the violence that ensued, its severity, was almost certainly also related to labor. The African-American sharecroppers were at a meeting of the Progressive Farmers and Household Union. At a church.

We might recall a similar moment in the career and martyrdom of Martin Luther King Jr. Rev. King was threatened many times over the course of his civil rights advocacy, but it was while he was at a Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike that he was actually killed.

Racial ressentiment runs as a thread through all of American history (see the 1619 Project). Clearly the massacres in Elaine had a racial component, one for which all of us should repent and work for reparations.

But Elaine, and Memphis, and so many other moments in our history, are also and just as much about the violent repression of workers as they are about race, and on Labor Day weekend, it’s worth keeping that in mind.

Christians in particular have been mindful of labor as a justice issue, one that pushes up peacefully against violence. Labor Sunday (something some of us observe this weekend) was taken up very early during the rise of social Christianity in the United States.

Nine years before the Elaine Massacre, organizers in Chicago launched an appeal inviting congregations to either bring workers into the pulpit to speak about labor, or have the preachers themselves preach on labor from the pulpit. A basic principal of the movement: “The aims of the labor movement were fully consonant with the teachings of Christianity.”

Some divines in Chicago argue some of the worst enemies organized labor has are very ardent church goers. Those attentive to the story and life of Jesus noticed the incongruence. The very faith popular among the working class, a faith in a very working class Jesus, could not and should not be a class-constrained faith (anymore than it should be a racially constrained one).

Yet the fact remained, “the reason why workingmen are not found in larger numbers in the church is not due to the coldness of the church, nor to the dress parade, but primarily to the fact that the church has been more upon the side of capital than upon the side of labor.” (Rev. Austin Hunter, 1910)

Nine years later, the growing energy of the social gospel movement, wedding as it did faith and labor interests, naturally extended its way out to base communities all across the nation. It’s no surprise workers even as far-flung as Elaine, Arkansas would be found in a church conversing with the Progressive Farmers and Household Union.

It’s also no surprise anti-labor forces, together with racist forces, would have mobilized as enemies of labor and minorities, to suppress any such organizing. In Arkansas as elsewhere, evil if effective suppressive strategies seem almost instinctual. In Elaine, for example, whites came in from Mississippi and elsewhere and indiscriminately murdered African-Americans in order to quell the sharecropper organizing.

The Elaine Legacy Center summarizes it well. This “… demonstrates the continuing legacy of White supremacy and ruling class power in the Delta.” It’s not just white supremacy and racism. It’s the intersection of class and racism that begets some of the most violent moments in our or any history. Think similarly of the Tulsa Race Riots, something mostly untaught until recently in our schools, a race riot that was also all about squashing the rise of African-American economic standing in the city.

In the end, as a person of faith, I’m particularly troubled the Elaine Massacre started on the grounds of a church. The churches seem to play an integral, and problematic, role in racial and class tensions. We are either the space in which the social gospel may flourish. Or, we are the enemy of organized labor. Both in a sense are true. As a pastor I hope I’m further the social gospel connection while dampening the ways we have been historically the enemy of organized labor or exclusionary of the working class.

But I’m also aware of the dramatic middle class captivity of the church in North America. It’s perhaps our greatest heresy.

So on this Labor Day weekend, I want to recognize and lift up workers, organizers of unions and other worker justice movements in particular. I want to celebrate what they do, which is to ensure that capital doesn’t have the last word, that corporations only have power because of workers, and that race, as complex as it is in our nation, is integrally tied up in how we think about work and its value, and the human beings, all beloved of God, who perform such work with skill and grace.

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  • Rod Bristol

    You lead me to think race is mostly a visual pointer to economic disparity. The mob rule and riots of our history mostly arose from fear of loss of economic privilege, sometimes across racial lines. Racism corresponds closely to economic fears, both as the driver of racism and the expression of racism. Our strife over what should happen at our borders expresses anxiety about imagined economic hazards. We like to think we are a nation of laws and that our laws deserve respect, but our laws themselves are a moral disaster. Our dalliance with and mismanagement of illicit drugs fuels the corruption that drives desperate people to our relative safety.

  • Bob Moody

    “Some divines in Chicago argue some of the worst enemies organized labor has are very ardent church goers.”

    This reminded me that Jeff Sharlett wrote in his book The Family that opposing organized labor was one of The Family’s earliest priorities.

  • What does the death of 38 people in 1919 have to do with the 330 people killed in Chicago in 2019 so far? Nothing!
    There is simply no comparison. You fail to mention the massacre of workers at the Ford plant in 1932. Yet you mention the despicable 1619 Project as it it has any basis in fact or race realtions in this country today. Stop fomenting racial discord by your words and trying to blame people who have been dead for centuries. The only White Supremacy issue in this county today is in the mind of the Left as your blog demonstrates.

  • Gussie FinkNottle

    There is an excellent book on this subject called “On the Laps of Gods.” It highlights the economic underpinnings of the massacre on both sides and how they were ultimately rooted in racial disparity. Black sharecroppers organized because they were exploited worse than white sharecroppers. And white folks needed to nip it in the bud because they knew they couldn’t afford to let the camel’s nose under the tent.

    The SCOTUS case that arose from this horrific event, Moore vs. Dempsey, was the first in a long line of decisions that started to reverse Jim Crow and enshrine specific Constitutional rights in legal precedent and led, ultimately, to the Civil Rights Act. Thanks, black sharecroppers from podunk Arkansas!

  • Bob, I had to reread the post a couple more times to look for a connection to murders in Chicago this year. Your right, there is no connection, none to unrest in the Middle East or to cures for athlete’s Foot either, so I am not sure what the point is. The Ford Plant march in ‘32 included grievances over racial discrimination as well as more general concerns, so again, I am unsure why the angry outburst. The above article is not solely about race, but covers the broader conflict between organized workers and big business. As for the 1619 Project, well I guess racial inequality is something (perhaps like global warming) that you’d prefer to pretend doesn’t exist?
    As long as we have people who bury their heads in the sand, white nationalism will continue. So thanks for your lack of concern.

  • I think the greatest clash between the conservative church and unionization began in the 40s as a reaction to FDR as outlined in the article below. Wealth, privilege, religion and exploitative free market capitalism joined forces to offset FDR’s New Deal. The precedent set in the 40’s has continued unabated to this day among evangelicals. I grew up being told about the evils of unionization. To be sure, there was graft and corruption as well as mob involvement, but the interests of evangelicals and big business were anything but spiritual…unless worshipping profit is your liturgy and mammon your god.
    https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2015/04/corporate-america-invented-religious-right-conservative-roosevelt-princeton-117030

  • The outburst is angst over the reference to an anniversary regarding the deaths of people 100 years ago when we have twice that many shot and killed in Chicago each year.
    The only reason for the mention is to sow racial discord and create discontentment.
    The 1619 Project is another fake, fraud and hoax aimed at the same end. This country was not founded in 1619 nor was it built on the backs of slaves.
    White nationalism does not exist except in the minds of the Liberals who hate this country.

  • Linnea912

    Thank you! Well said. I was raised Methodist, as the granddaughter of labor activists (and democratic socialists!) I also think of the fact that the Gospels identify Jesus as a carpenter’s son- it’s impossible to know, of course, but maybe he spent some time working as a carpenter before beginning his ministry. In addition, Jesus was certainly on the side of the poor and oppressed of his place and time. I think that if Jesus were to come today, he would be telling off the corporate fat-cat CEOs with the same vitriol as he did the religious and political leaders of the 1st century Middle East!

  • Lol.

  • Clint Schnekloth

    Apparently Bob thinks if he is shrill there must be some truth in his claims.

  • Or he has decided to call out phony blame sharing.

  • He’s just scared. He’s a victim of White privilege. It’s a slippery slope. First they abolish slavery, then they declare segregation unconstitutional, then they take away tax exemptions from Christian segregation academies. Now liberals want conservatives to admit there’s still racial inequalities and that we owe Blacks big time. There’s just so much a true red blooded American can be expected to put up with! 😉