Tuesday, November 25, 2014

After Ferguson Verdict, I Remember My City's Last Lynching in 1927: Rioting Mobs, Destruction of Property, Failure of Grand Jury to Return Indictment

As furor ensues following the Missouri grand jury verdict, I'm astounded to be told on Facebook by a fellow citizen of my state that "we" have the "best legal system man has ever created." When I read that statement, my mind immediately scrolls back to the last lynching that occurred in my city of Little Rock. It happened in 1927. In my mother's lifetime. She was a girl of five years old living 20 miles downriver from the city. This happened in my mother's lifetime . . . . I remember being told stories about all of this in my own childhood

To refresh my memory of this horrific incident, I decided this morning to turn to the article about the lynching in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History and Culture. Brian D. Greer recounts the facts of this story in an article entitled "John Carter (Lynching of)." In a nutshell, here's what happened:

In April 1927, a twelve-year-old white girl, Floella McDonald, went missing. After a three-week search, her body was found hanging in the belfry of First Presbyterian church. The church's janitor, a black man, found the body. Police then charged the janitor and his son, Lonnie Dixon, a biracial young man, with the murder. 

Since they knew that feelings were high and the two men might well be lynched, justice officials removed them from Little Rock. This decision proved prudent, since on the night of the day it was made, mobs gathered outside the state penitentiary and Little Rock's city hall, demanding that the men be turned over to them. The mobs are said to have numbered in the thousands.

When those who wanted lynching as justice realized that their goal had been thwarted, there was widespread outrage, and people began to look for some victim on whom to lay their hands. On 4 May, a rumor spread through the city that an African-American man named John Carter had jumped into a wagon being driven into Little Rock by a white woman and her daughter. A number of accounts suggest that John Carter was mentally challenged. He had previously been jailed on charges that he had attacked a white woman.

Following the rumor that Carter had threatened two white women, the mobs seized him, strung him from a telephone pole in the center of the city, and shot him. They then tied his corpse to a car and dragged it into the heart of the African-American business section of Little Rock, and set it on fire there, using for firewood the pews of an African-American Methodist Episcopal church that they looted and destroyed. Black businesses were also looted and set on fire. People reported seeing one of the rioters using the charred arm of John Carter to direct traffic.

Eyewitness accounts say that anywhere from 5,000 to 7,000 white citizens rioted, looting and destroying the property of black citizens, on the night following this lynching. They shot guns into the air as they did so. The National Guard had to be called in to contain the rioting.

And then, as Greer states, the following happened:

A grand jury was convened to investigate the incident [i.e., the lynching of John Carter], but it deadlocked and was dismissed without issuing indictments.

By contrast, a jury deliberated twelve minutes and then convicted Lonnie Dixon of the murder of Floella McDonald. He was executed in the electric chair on 24 June 1927, his sixteenth birthday.

Does any of this sound the least bit familiar to any of you? The rioting, the destruction of property, the grand jury that failed to issue any indictments?

The best legal system man has ever created?! If so, that system seems to have borne some terribly, noxiously strange fruit, doesn't it? Some lives count, and have always counted, for that justice system.

And some have simply not ever counted.

The video of Billie Holiday singing "Strange Fruit" was uploaded to YouTube by MonsieurBaudelaire.

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