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Right now, the Arkansas Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission is aiding communities in establishing markers for a variety of military events that happened across the state during the Civil War. While I am a tremendous supporter of this initiative, the attention paid to these various skirmishes — some of which entailed only one or two deaths (such as the Skirmish at Lunenburg) — highlights by contrast the events that remain invisible upon our commemorative landscape, despite their having far greater significance. The Elaine Massacre of 1919 entailed, according to one estimate, approximately 200 murders and has poisoned race relations in Phillips County and the Delta to the present day. The Harrison Race Riots of 1905 and 1909 and the Catcher Race Riot of 1923 involved the brutal destruction of vibrant black communities, so much so that few, if any, African Americans live in those places now. In Little Rock, before there was the Central High Crisis, there was the 1927 lynching of John Carter, during which 5,000 whites rioted in the heart of the city's black community as they burned and tore apart Carter's corpse. The state of Arkansas needs to establish markers at the site of these events, for more than Civil War skirmishes, these riots and massacres impact our present lives, and solemnly commemorating them will help us understand the present shape of race relations and aid us in coming to grips with how we might improve our record on civil rights and human rights for the 21st century.
Guy Lancaster is the editor of the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture.
Racial disparity in Arkansas's criminal justice system must be addressed. Disproportionately higher rates of incarceration based on race harms communities of color and ultimately all of Arkansas. Since the death penalty is the punishment for which, once imposed, there is no recourse, Arkansas should start by addressing it and implementing a Racial Justice Act. Such an act would allow people of color charged with a capital crime to challenge the imposition of the death penalty by presenting data that the punishment has not been imposed on similarly situated whites.
The problem of racial disparity in the death penalty was addressed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1987 in McClesky v. Kemp. The late David Baldus presented statistical evidence showing that in Georgia, black men were significantly more likely than white men to be charged with a capital crime. The disparity increased when the victim was white. The Supreme Court said to invalidate death sentences based on the statistics would turn the criminal justice system on its head. Justice Powell, who authored the opinion, later said if he could revisit it he would decide differently.
Baldus conducted a similar study in Arkansas's 8th circuit north (Hempstead and Nevada Counties) and 8th circuit south (Miller and Lafayette Counties) in 2008 that reviewed cases from January 1, 1990, to December 31, 2005. He found that only black men had been charged, convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death and only for the murders of white victims.
State legislators throughout the United States have introduced Racial Justice Act legislation. It passed in North Carolina in 2009 and is now the basis for a number of challenges by black men to their sentence of death. Legislation addressing the death penalty, however, should only be the first step. The same approach should be taken for other felony convictions. Why should the state allow this actualization of structural racism?
Adjoa A. Aiyetoro is the director of the UALR Institute on Race and Ethnicity and an associate professor of the UALR William H. Bowen School of Law.
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