September 30th, 2019 marked 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.