Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Wendell Griffen, "Standing with Elaine"

With the permission of my friend Judge (and Reverend) Wendell Griffen, I'd like to share with you a statement he has made recently on his blog The Fierce Urgency of Prophetic Hope. A bit of background: as Wendell's posting notes, in October 1919, hundreds of black men, women, and children were murdered in an event in eastern Arkansas now known as the Elaine Massacre. There are some outstanding historical accounts of what occurred in this massacre — one of the largest race-based massacres in American history. These accounts provide a narrative of what happened to the extent to which historians can piece together what occurred, when so much evidence has been lost or suppressed.

In fact, he actual number of those slaughtered has not ever been determined, though credible accounts place the numbers in the hundreds. Bodies were buried in hidden graves, and because this event occurred as part of a repressive reign of terror by wealthy white landowners in the Arkansas and Mississippi Delta who wanted to squelch collusion of black and white sharecroppers, people were unwilling for many years to talk about what they knew, had seen, had heard. Arkansas historian Grif Stockly provides a good overview of the Elaine Massacre in an article in the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas. His prize-winning book Blood in Their Eyes: The Elaine Race Massacres of 1919 (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2001) is considered one of the best historical sources about this atrocity.

Switch to the present: a group of business leaders (mostly white) in the town of Helena, 25 miles from Elaine — Helena is the place in which the massacre of black citizens in 1919 was plotted — now want to erect a monument to the Elaine Massacre. But they want to erect it in Helena (where they will benefit economically from tourism related to the monument), not at the site at which the massacre occurred. As an African-American leader and pastor, Wendell Griffen has been speaking out about this decision, denouncing it. He is meeting fierce resistance, and, as he notes, our statewide newspaper recently featured a statement by another African-American personality in the state contesting Wendell's opposition to the decision to site the Elaine monument in Helena. (The white power structure of Arkansas has a long, invidious history of playing members of the African-American community against each other, and as Frantz Fanon's classic work about the dynamics oppressors use to keep the marginalized in their marginal positions, The Wretched of the Earth, tells us, oppressive power structures can always find within marginalized communities those willing to assist them in keeping the marginalization of their own community alive).

This debate is playing out against a background of resurgent, open, violent racism in much of the U.S. and, in particular, in places like Arkansas. That resurgent racism is directly related to the presidency of Donald Trump. The latest event in this saga: parties unknown have just cut down a memorial tree planted at Elaine to honor the victims of the Elaine Massacre, and have stolen a plaque affixed to the tree. Here's Wendell's fine statement:

Standing with Elaine

Wendell Griffen

In an opinion column published on August 22, 2019 by Baptist News Global, I condemned and denounced plans to “dedicate” a “memorial” or “monument” in Helena, Arkansas to the hundreds of black men, women, and children who were murdered in and near Elaine, Arkansas — 25 miles away from Helena — by white vigilantes and federal troops over the course of several days beginning October 1, 1919.   On August 24, 2019, Judge Brian Miller of Helena took issue with my critique of the Helena “monument” or “memorial” in a guest editorial published in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (). 

I respect Judge Miller’s choice to honor his four great-uncles who were among the hundreds of other black men, women, and children, massacred near Elaine, Arkansas.  No matter what anyone else may think about it, Judge Miller and his family are free to do so where a monument to Confederate soldiers killed during the Civil War now stands.   

What white supremacists in Helena and their sycophants are not entitled to do is misrepresent history without moral criticism.  They may not turn the Elaine Race Massacre of 1919 into the latest manifestation of white supremacy and capitalist opportunism without being denounced as hypocrites. 

None of the massacred black men, women, and children – including Judge Miller’s four great-uncles — was murdered in Helena.  Judge Miller’s relatives were unjustly arrested and murdered in Elaine.  

The faction that directed the Elaine Massacre was headquartered in Helena, directed the Massacre from Helena, and falsely represented to the world that the hundreds of Massacre victims — including Judge Miller’s four great uncles — were part of a black insurrection against white people in Phillips County. 

Helena is where the sham trials were held by white supremacists which resulted in wrongful convictions of the Elaine 12 — twelve black men from Elaine – for murder.

Helena is where black men were tortured by white supremacists into making false confessions.  

Helena is where white supremacists plotted and directed mass murder and then prevented any white person from being arrested, prosecuted, and sentenced for perpetrating mass murder.  

Helena is where restaurants, hotels, and other establishments owned and operated by the political, economic, and cultural descendants of white supremacists who perpetrated and benefited from the Elaine Race Massacre now intend to capitalize and garner profits from setting up what they and their sycophants have labeled a “monument” or “memorial” to the Elaine Race Massacre on ground that now includes a monument to Confederate soldiers. 

The Elaine Race Massacre began in Hoop Spur, a place less than 2 miles from Elaine – and more than 20 miles from Helena.  Hoop Spur “has long since disappeared from the maps of Phillips County, Arkansas” according to the opening words of Robert Whitaker’s 2008 award-winning book, On The Laps Of Gods (Three Rivers Press).  Hoop Spur, Elaine, and south Phillips County are where federal troops trained machine guns on black workers and their families because white planters, merchants, bankers, and other leaders in Helena were determined to trample black aspirations of liberation and economic independence. 

Like the Elaine Race Massacre, the 2019 Helena “monument” or “memorial” shows how white supremacy operates to the detriment of black people in Elaine and throughout Phillips County.  Erecting a “monument” and placing the Elaine name will attract tourist dollars for white merchants.  

But it will never absolve the corrupt legal, commercial, and religious system in Helena that shielded white murderers and their white supremacist leaders from investigation and criminal prosecution.  

It will never honor the hundreds of black men, women, and children from Elaine and south Phillips County who were massacred with the active cooperation of white supremacist local, state, and federal authorities.  

And it will never symbolize “healing” or “reconciliation.”

Helena’s falsely-labeled “Elaine Race Massacre” “monument,” like the nearby monument to Confederate Civil War soldiers where it is located, is a shrine to white supremacy that shows Helena, Arkansas to be headquarters for a racist, brutal, and capitalist regime that exploits black and un-wealthy people in Phillips County, Arkansas. 

Jesus and other Hebrew prophets angrily denounced commercialized religion and pietistic hypocrisy that ignored and sacralized oppression so merchants and other affluent actors could line their pockets (see Amos 8:4-12).  That’s why I’m standing with Elaine to denounce white supremacists of Helena and their sycophants as hypocrites.   

The photo of Wendell Griffen is from his Twitter profile page.

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