In West Memphis the endless night of racial conflict that so characterizes the Arkansas Delta in the 21st century is being played out in a hothouse atmosphere of emotion and acrimony that is increasingly devoid of restraint. The aftermath of the tragic, night-time shooting death in June 2007 of 12-year-old DeAunta Farrow by white West Memphis policeman Erik Sammis, with its charges and counter-charges by an African American judge, a racially divided City Council, and white police chief escalates almost with each news-cycle. At one point in December police Chief Bob Paudert publicly called the six black city councilmen “a group of vigilantes,” adding, “I’ve had all I want of these radical, clueless members of the council.” The six had voted for a resolution requesting that West Memphis’s white mayor Bill Johnson fire officers Sammis and Jimmy Evans, his partner the night of the shooting.
The chief also implicitly threatened a group of black ministers in West Memphis for their actions. “Some of these radical ministers are convicted felons and I’ve had calls asking me to expose them for what they are and what they are,” Paudert told the West Memphis Evening Times.
The six black City Council members responded by voting to “request” the mayor also to fire Chief Paudert, who has held the position for nine years and had been credited with substantially reducing crime in West Memphis by “pro-active” policing measures. The four whites on the board voted against the resolution. Mayor Johnson said publicly, “Chief Paudert has my undivided, unequivocal support,” and allowed the chief to remain on the job. A city ordinance requires seven votes to force a dismissal.
Throw into the mix two visits by activist Al Sharpton and other outsiders, allegations by the mother’s private attorney who has filed a civil suit for damages for $225 million that DeAunta Farrow did not have a toy gun as alleged by police, and the power of the Internet to make plain the racism that rages on both sides of the color equation, and you have the makings of a perfect racial storm.
To be sure, what has been occurring in Crittenden County is not about any one incident, however incendiary. Like all racial dilemmas, whether in South Africa or the United States, Crittenden County’s struggle is rooted in both the near and distant past. In the racial sphere, the history of Arkansas, particularly the history of the Arkansas Delta, has largely been the commitment of its white citizens to white supremacy, its eventual curbing by the federal government, and the failure in the last 50 odd years to come to terms with its consequences.
The temptation in central Arkansas is to consider the on-going events in Crittenden County as problems peculiar to the Delta. In comparison, the racial difficulties outside the Delta deceptively appear almost manageable. On the contrary, the struggle that is consuming West Memphis and Crittenden County today may well be viewed in Little Rock as 2008’s most dreaded “coming attraction.” In other words, assuming whites continue to leave the city and political power in Little Rock continues to shift to black Arkansans, racial conflicts that seem today mostly centered on the Little Rock School District and education will manifest themselves in other areas of public life. Thus, as Little Rock becomes a majority minority city the racial tragedies in the Delta are either Little Rock’s future, or, in the best-case scenario, an on-going case study of what can go hideously wrong.
Ironically, what is occurring in West Memphis thus far is no less than the democratic process. As ugly and brutal as it has been, constitutional government is working in West Memphis. It has not always been so in the Delta, particularly in Crittenden County. Even by Delta standards, a brief overview of its racial history of the county is painful. Though the Civil War in Arkansas for the most part had been an unmitigated disaster, whites in Crittenden County had no intention of surrendering all of their prerogatives. Under the entry on “lynching,” we are told in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas that during the Reconstruction Era in Crittenden County, highly organized Klan groups terrorized local blacks, gained complete control of the county and hanged and murdered scores of people (though an exact count will never be known). In the late 1860s, hundreds of blacks in Crittenden County periodically sought protection from plantation owner E.M. Main, who was a Freedmen’s Bureau official succeeding his murdered predecessor.
There is little doubt about the equally hardball tactics of Republican governor Powell Clayton in putting down this homegrown band of terrorists. In 1868 Clayton organized a militia that included blacks, set aside voter registration, and imposed martial law in 14 counties, including Crittenden. By March of 1869, Clayton, in the words of historian Allen Trelease, “accomplished more than any other Southern governor in suppressing the Ku Klux conspiracy.”
By 1874 Reconstruction in Arkansas had ended, and though the Democrats returned to power, the Delta, with its heavily-majority black populations now empowered with the right to vote for adult males thanks to the 15th Amendment, presented a major problem: how to keep blacks satisfied enough to stay in Arkansas and provide the essential labor force that kept the plantation system going. The political solution in most of these counties, including Crittenden, was known as “fusion.” Though most of the details have been lost to history, each election cycle whites and blacks in the Delta agreed in advance upon a division of county offices and representation in the legislature. Though whites invariably retained most important offices (even today there has been only one black county judge in the state, in the 19th century in Chicot County), fusion worked after a fashion. Indeed, by 1888 it may have been working too well in Crittenden County, for by that year, blacks occupied the following major offices: judge, county clerk, assessor, and a representative in the state legislature. Marion County historian Marion Woolfolk writes that black office holders were summarily rounded up and forced to leave Crittenden County and abandon their positions.
“... a group of about 80 whites assembled at Marion about 10 a.m. July 13, 1888, and marched to the courthouse where David Ferguson [the county clerk] was forced to resign at the muzzle of a Winchester rifle and afterwards was escorted to the 3:30 p.m. train. Boarded with him were Rooks [county assessor], Wash Deavers, a constable ... . Other blacks were taken by wagon to the Mississippi River, then by boat to Memphis, and released.”
Despite the fact that Crittenden County was overwhelmingly black in 1888, no blacks would be elected to a county office in the fall or, indeed, for the next 100 years, according to Woolfolk.
Had blacks taken it upon themselves to relieve white officeholders of their positions and escort them from the county with the suggestion that they not return, the governor would have immediately sent a militia to Crittenden County that would have been joined by a mob of whites from all over the Delta.
Arkansas historians have documented the growing populist threat to the ruling Democrats in 1888, and the events in Crittenden County must be understood in a broader context. For one brief moment in Arkansas history, it appeared that class would triumph over race. How disaffected black and white farmers fought for a measure of economic independence and justice through the formation of Agricultural Wheels in Arkansas is not a story that can be told here. The point is that in 1888 a new political order seemed a real possibility under the leadership of a one-legged ex-Confederate veteran named C.M. Norwood, who under the banner of the Union Labor Party put together a coalition of black and white farmers and laborers, small merchants, and white Republicans. Until 1888 fusion had seemed like a distasteful but necessary measure to maintain the peace in the Delta and had been encouraged by prominent Democrats in the state. A few blacks in the legislature were harmless enough, but if they were able to cross class lines and unite with whites, all bets were off. The conclusion to the Crittenden County story was that the exiled blacks made their way to Little Rock for an audience with the Democratic Gov. Thomas Eagle. The governor reportedly told them the matter was out of his hands. Though it was maintained a few more years in other counties, fusion had begun to take its last breaths in the Delta on July 12, 1888. Granted, its demise was nowhere as dramatic as in Crittenden County. Violence, routine election fraud, a poll tax, changes in election procedure and finally the White Primary would terminate meaningful participation by blacks in the political process in the rest of Arkansas. By 1894 there were no blacks serving in the legislature. In 1873 there had been 20.
In the first half of the 20th century the white supremacy movement in Crittenden County generally meant for blacks (as in the rest of the Delta) disfranchisement, segregation, intimidation, exploitation, discrimination, poverty, and violence. One can go to the Central Arkansas Library’s Arkansas Black History Online and count five black males lynched between 1900 and 1936. It may well have been more.
Since the end of slavery, sharecropping was about all there was to do to make a living in the Delta, and as the economy worsened in the 20th century, more whites lost their land and became tenants. No less an Arkansas luminary than Harvard-educated John Gould Fletcher, still our only Pulitzer-Prize poet, wrote a letter to the editor of the Nation in 1932 in which he said in part, “But we are determined, whether rightly or wrongly, to treat him [the Negro] as a race largely dependent upon us, and inferior to ours.”
With the Great Depression Crittenden County became Exhibit A for some of the worst abuses perpetrated in the name of white supremacy. For example, historian Michael Dougan has written that the town of Crawfordsville spent $57 dollars on white education for every $1 spent on education for African-Americans.
Efforts to join with whites in the formation of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union met with violence for members of both races. Historian Donald Grubbs writes that in 1936 a gang of white riding bosses and planters entered the Providence Methodist Church outside of Earle in Crittenden County where 450 black sharecroppers were gathered.
They immediately began slugging the sharecroppers with ax handles and pistol butts, guffawing loudly as they cracked the skulls of women and children. Deputy Hood promised one of the leaders, Howard Kester, “There’s going to be another Elaine Massacre, only the next time we’ll kill whites as well as the niggers.”
Though the STFU operated outside Arkansas as well, it seemed that Crittenden County had a genius for attracting bad publicity. Peonage or debt slavery had long been an issue and doubtless private prison farms existed elsewhere, but it so happened that an official of the national Young Men’s Christian Association, Dr. Sherwood Eddy, took it upon himself to come to Arkansas to make his own investigation. As it so happened, Paul D. Peacher, a deputy sheriff of Crittenden County, had his own farming operation on the side. While Peacher was away from his farm, Eddy slipped in and interviewed 13 black prisoners who all told him they had been charged and convicted of “vagrancy,” despite the fact that they were all long-time residents of the area. Some even were property owners. Crittenden County became notorious. “Slavery in Arkansas” ran a headline in Time Magazine on Dec. 7, 1936.
The sense of entitlement and privilege that was from slavery forward the foundation of white supremacy engendered a mindset in Arkansas that could rationalize almost any behavior. When there was racial conflict in Arkansas, traditionally only blacks were held accountable for their behavior. The idea that white men should be held criminally responsible for marching duly elected black officials at gunpoint out of Crittenden County was never a consideration. Lynching, which increasingly became an all-black affair toward the end of the 19th century, became a perfect expression of this mentality. If there are any examples of whites being charged for murder after a lynching in Arkansas, it has escaped the attention of the historians. The unwritten code was that whites did not prosecute other whites for killing blacks, and thus massacres in St. Charles in 1904 and Elaine in 1919 could occur without a single white being charged.
News was made only in those rare cases when a prosecution occurred, and the effort to prosecute Paul Peacher was truly an extraordinary event that only took place after federal intervention at the highest levels. Certainly, Fred Isgrig, the U.S. attorney for the eastern district of Arkansas, described in Donald Grubbs’s “Cry from the Cotton” as a “prominent member of Little Rock’s conservative Planter’s Club,” had no interest in the facts of the case. By August of 1936 however, the Roosevelt administration was taking heat for its inaction, and the complaints about conditions were now being routed to the Department of Justice rather than the Department of Agriculture. Suddenly, there was a U.S. attorney from Minnesota in charge of the Grand Jury, and the “good ole boy system” in Arkansas was temporarily shelved. It was one thing to charge Peacher with “aiding and abetting in the holding of slavery,” and quite another thing to get a conviction. Defense attorney N.S. Lamb felt he was on firm ground in telling the Jonesboro jury who heard the case that “[y]ou can’t expect negroes in a short time among civilized people to rise to the level of good citizens.”
Had the federal judge not been John Martineau, who had a history of seeking racial justice, it is extremely doubtful that 12 white jurors in Jonesboro would have come back with a guilty verdict and a $3,500 fine. It is said that Martineau practically instructed the jurors that given the facts of the case, they had no option but to convict. Peacher’s punishment, a fine of $3,500, was paid immediately by his fellow planters.
In Crittenden County, the need was for black labor, not black education. According to Margaret Woolfolk, Marion, the county seat, “never had a school building for the sole purpose of Negroes’ education.” It was not until 1925 that an elementary school for blacks was built outside of Marion in the all-black community of Sunset. Black children attended school on a split-term so they would be available for the planting and harvesting seasons. Though some high school courses were available after 1935, “those desiring higher education were forced to go to schools in Memphis, Little Rock, St. Louis, elsewhere. “ Even the high school courses that were available at Phelix High School in Sunset were not free to blacks who were charged “tuition payments ... for upper level courses.” Though buses were provided for white students, buses for blacks “were not operated until the fall of 1946.”
The disgraceful state of black education once again drew national attention to Crittenden County. In the March 21, 1949, issue of Life Magazine an article with accompanying photographs dealt with the shocking conditions of black education in West Memphis. According to the article, in 1948 the town of West Memphis spent an average of $144.51 for each white child’s education and $19.51 for the education of each black child. Photographs revealed the hideously crowded conditions in the black school which had been partially destroyed by fire. Three hundred and ten students and their five teachers were squeezed into five rooms of the gutted building and 370 more were packed into a one room church. On Sept. 27, 1949, a bond issue for a new black school was defeated. Meanwhile, a new $300,000 facility for 900 white children had just opened.
Given the attitude toward African Americans in Crittenden County, it should not have come as a surprise that NAACP attorney Wiley Branton’s letter on Sept. 30, 1955, to the West Memphis School Board calling attention to the requirements of the Brown decisions resulted only in the firing of local NAACP board president B.J. Yarbrough from his job at Eden Pontiac. He also received numerous threats. The dependency of blacks in the Delta on the white community for jobs would make efforts to achieve even token compliance with the Brown decisions extremely difficult. In towns like Marion, which did not even have a school for blacks inside the city limits, it would not be until 1971 that the first blacks graduated from Marion High School.
Given the historical commitment in Crittenden County to keep the black community in a state of dependency and inferiority, deep mistrust on both sides of the racial equation literally comes with the territory in 2007.
Though black persons in Crittenden County can hardly be expected to accept another killing of a black person by whites (a child no less) with anything less than horror and the utmost suspicion, from a historical perspective the response of the white power structure has dramatically improved since the dawn of the civil rights era in the 1960s. On July 17, 1963, in a scene out of the Delta’s past, a group of whites composed of law enforcement personnel and citizens from Marion, then a farming community of less than a thousand people, chased Arthur Lee Anderson, an unarmed 16-year-old black youth, into a bean field. Anderson had allegedly raped 8-year old Nancy Burns. Anderson was shot in the back of the leg with a 30.06 rifle by the child’s father, Samuel Burns, and bled to death. A coroner’s jury composed of 19 white men took testimony the next day and concluded that the shooting had been justified under Arkansas law. Julian Fogleman, then the assistant prosecuting attorney, closed the investigation, and stated, “We think we have brought all the witnesses before the coroner’s jury and exposed all the facts. We don’t think the decision was wrong and don’t plan to go further with it.” Though L.C. Bates, then field secretary for the Arkansas NAACP and a group of residents including black ministers protested the decision, Fogleman stood by the coroner jury’s recommendation and took no further action. The report of an FBI investigation at the time has not been located. As has been the protocol for these matters, the Justice Department is re-evaluating a number of civil rights incidents from this era, but the U.S. attorney’s office for the eastern district of Arkansas has not yet received a report by the FBI.
A 2007 evaluation of the 1963 incident by University of Syracuse law student Matthew Stoloff, who reviewed Arkansas statutes, case law, and the transcript of the coroner’s jury proceeding for a class, suggests that “Anderson’s death was an act of vigilante justice. Alternatively, Anderson’s death was caused by a father’s desire for revenge.”
Given that a number of key players are dead, including the child’s father, the likelihood of prosecution in the Anderson case is remote. Whatever legal justification is offered to explain this incident in 1963, it should be noted that according to the coroner’s report, Anderson did not rape or physically injure the child (though it is possible he may have committed a felony involving sexual behavior). In any event, one would have to be from another planet to believe that if Anderson had been white he would have been chased down and shot from behind.
In marked contrast to the Anderson incident in 1963, the Arkansas State Police, following routine procedures, conducted an investigation of the Farrow shooting, and Judge David Burnett appointed special outside prosecuting attorneys to investigate the matter. In an 800-page report filed Nov. 20 and made available to the public at the Crittenden County Courthouse, Garland County Prosecuting attorneys H.G. Foster and Saline County Prosecuting Attorney Jack McQuary concluded that officers Sammis and Evans had followed proper procedures and that the matter did not warrant charging Sammis under the Arkansas criminal code. Their conclusion was consistent with the findings made by a Department of Justice investigation and State Police investigation.
Still, to African Americans in Crittenden County, there was the clear sense that once more a black person had suffered an intolerable injustice at the hands of the white establishment. Indeed, DeAunta Farrow was no young thug but a child who had never been in trouble, an average student, who was loved by apparently all, according to school personnel. Writing that the child’s death “constitutes a tragedy of the highest order,” the outside prosecutors’ report took pains to note that “[y]oung DeAunta was in his own neighborhood, his mother knew where he was going and what he was doing, he was with one family member going to another’s residence and was not engaged in any illegal activity.”
On Nov. 26, Circuit Judge Victor Hill, the only African-American judge in the judicial district, entered an order that would have resulted in the convening of a special grand jury to investigate the shooting. The proceeding is still being temporarily stayed by an order of the Arkansas Supreme Court, where oral arguments were heard Jan. 24.
In his order, Hill referred to an incident in 2000 in which a grand jury had been impaneled to determine whether a West Memphis black policeman who was accused of beating to death a white motorist should stand trial. The grand jury found sufficient evidence and officer David Turner was convicted of manslaughter after the first trial ended in a hung jury. Judge Hill wrote that, “it appears that every mechanism allowed by law has been interposed to prevent the officer in the latter [Farrow] case from answering to a panel of Crittenden County citizens about the propriety or impropriety of his actions.”
Judge Hill then criticized the city attorney and assistant chief of police, both white, contending that together “they had filed a series of frivolous and racially motivated complaints” against him, thus going “out of their way to attempt to publicly undermine the authority and dignity of the court for no other reason than that a black man occupied the position.” Judge Hill also indicted the white community by writing, “they [the city attorney and assistant chief of police] will, as they apparently always have, receive tacit endorsement of their vile attitudes.”
In a society with a history of commitment to the full equality and betterment of all its citizens, tragedies like the DeAunta Farrow case would not occur, but if they did, their resolution would take place in a judicial system so transparent that the pain and bitterness could be mitigated. In other words, African Americans would be prosecutors, judges, lawyers, police chiefs, police officers, Supreme Court judges in numbers that would reflect that society’s commitment to color-blind justice. Instead, Crittenden County, like the Delta, and most of Arkansas is reaping the bitter harvest of white supremacy, and the endless night continues.
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