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History Review    

 

 

       Blood in Their Eyes:
       The Elaine Race Massacres of 1919
      By Grif Stockley
      The University of Arkansas Press, 2001
      ISBN: 1-55728-717-1 (cloth)

  

 

 

Normally, I do not preface a book review with perfunctory comments about the author.  However, in this case, I feel that it is incumbent upon me to do so.  So, here it is: 

Grif Stockley is without doubt the most significant and influential writer of fiction in the state of Arkansas. His six fiction books, (including the five murder mysteries from Simon & Schuster and his most recent release, Salted with Fire, from Rose Publishing Company, Inc., which was published in September of this year, are all landmark books, representing benchmarks of southern writing.   

Now, having said that, let me relate to you that Blood in Their Eyes is his first venture into the non-fiction realm and that the University of Arkansas, no less, has deigned to put his book into print.  They publish about thirty titles per year, with approximately ten of Arkansas regional interest.   

The main format of the book is simple: it is divided sharply into two divisions and is a precise inspection of historical records that resembles an investigation, very much in the vein of that famous novel, The Onion Field, by Joseph Wambaugh.   The first part of the work deals with actions and people involved in the incident.  The second part consists of the court trials of the Elaine Twelve, as they were to come to be known—black men believed guilty by locals of planning the murders of white planters in the area.  Also, as in Wambaugh’s tale, mass confusion, depravities, murders and hard-hitting, gut-punching realities are confronted from page one.  A race war had broken out and whites and blacks were busy killing each other wholesale!  Posses of whites arrive from the Arkansas and Mississippi countryside, then the Army.  Instead of halting, the killing appears to intensify. 

But, Blood in Their Eyes is not purported to be fiction, as in the Wambaugh book.  Why then this, from the Introduction by Mr. Stockley? 

“It appear that both whites and blacks who lived in Arkansas during the Elaine affair often failed to notice what was happening around them.  Neither whites nor blacks, of course, existed in a vacuum in the Arkansas Delta.  During all phases of the massacres, the psychology of the group dominated the individual.  Goleman (a psychologist and writer) argues that the “we” that composes a group “is as vulnerable as the self to self-deceptions.  The motivating force behind the forming of shared illusions in a group is identical to that in the self: to minimize anxiety.” 

This amounts to an apologetic on the behalf of the writer, and for the life of me, I don’t know why he bothers to put it in the front of his masterful and heavily researched book.  Mr. Stockley has the reader’s full attention throughout with his fine line drawing-out of events and descriptive relation of facts.  But, there is where the narrative should end: with facts.  There are many other places where innuendo, presumption, and the telling of things not in evidence pop up in this otherwise exhaustive and obviously time-consuming work.  These comments, usually off-hand and resembling side-bars (which a lawyer such as Mr. Stockley knows, being one himself), should not be intended to be presented to a reading public if not vouched safe for evidentiary hearing.   

I am sure that his version of the Elaine incident will be upheld in many circles.  Indeed, I have questions about the wisdom of the Governor of Arkansas at the time--Charles Hillman Brough--riding with a trainload of Army troops toward the town where a riot had broken out, without a clear command or set of orders in readiness upon reaching the disembarkation point.  It is mind-boggling.  Yet, it appears that he pranced around the countryside simply to be seen and photographed, as a photo opportunist, instead of sincerely dealing with the trouble at hand.  

Then, in Chapter four, the plot thickens.  The whites in town debate among themselves and come up with a conspiracy theory of pickers vs. planters.  A regular revolution, (they maintain), had been thwarted accidentally by the appearance at the Hoopspur hamlet church outside Elaine, by white law enforcement men breaking into a meeting of blacks while looking for bootleggers.  The blacks shot them, killing one white and wounding others.   Was the shooting brought on by an attempt at unionization by outside agitators?  The case was made that it was.  In addition, the putting forth of conspiracy and uprising, with a hit list of whites to be killed was promulgated as well. 

What lay ahead was a path of division: that of the Arkansas white establishment and the federal powers, to wrest the truth of the situation from the participants in the affair.  A long, legal trail of court trials followed in which black “insurrectionists” were eventually exonerated.  But with the whole matter being taken into court and dissected, presented, and discounted by lawyers, the truth eludes us…to this day. 

Did twenty blacks die during those days?  Eight hundred and twenty?  And, with the perspective of history, one has to beg the question: “Does it matter?”   

I take as my reasoning here, Stockley’s own prophetic words, (from page xxi): 

“The entire truth of the Jim Crow era and segregation will never be known until both blacks and whites summon the courage to battle the emotional anxiety that will accompany the discussion of these times.”

Was the trouble at Elaine, Arkansas a tragedy?  Undoubtedly.  And as a resident of Arkansas, with all my family from both father’s and mother’s side having lived there as well, I can tell you that there are a lot of polarizing and saddening stories of repressive and poor living conditions in evidence there; even to this day.  And so, Blood in Their Eyes will serve its purpose: that is, to raise our consciousness—even without the exact body count to confirm the significance of that awful tragedy.

 
Robert L. Hall
Southern Scribe Reviews

© 2001 Southern Scribe Reviews, All Rights Reserved