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Lynching was an extra-legal form of group violence, performed without judicial due process. Scholars enumerating cases of lynching consider only those cases in which an actual murder occurs, though some states had laws against the crime of “lynching in the second degree,” in which death did not result to the victim. Lynchings, especially in the American South, have typically been perpetrated on marginalized groups—predominately African Americans, but also Jews, immigrants, homosexuals, and criminals. One scholar estimates that, during its peak in the state (roughly the 1860s to the 1930s), at least 318 documented lynchings occurred, 231 victims of which were black.
Prior to the Civil War, most lynchings were carried out by individuals or mobs who sought to impose vigilante justice on white criminals. Because they were a form of property, slaves were rarely lynched. Reconstruction-era lynching, however, stemmed from the social disarray wrought by the war’s end. One common justification—since debunked—is that lynchings were frequent after the Civil War because justice was lacking and criminals often went free or were subjected to light sentences. Other motives were economic. “Whitecappers” (also known as “baldknobbers” and “nightriders”) were vigilante, primarily poor whites, who grouped together, beginning in the late 1860s, in order to intimidate African Americans into leaving a particular area, sometimes killing them. These poor white Arkansans often found themselves competing with freed slaves for land and jobs. In one instance that occurred along the Jefferson-Lonoke county lines, black tenant farmers were driven off their land in January 1905 by a group of poor whites known as the “Lonoke County Club.” The competition for land took form as a struggle not only between blacks and whites, but also between whites and Hispanics. Indeed, a mere month after the incident in Jefferson and Lonoke counties, whites warned migrant Hispanic laborers to leave the area or face violent consequences. In one rare case, in Phillips County in 1889, black whitecappers rose up to chase other blacks out of the area. However, the primary purpose of lynching was as a form of social control designed to keep African Americans subjugated and in a state of fear. Lynchings were also highly sexualized affairs, and one of the more common reasons given by whites who committed such acts was the pervasive need to protect white womanhood. The stereotype of the “black beast rapist” perpetuated the notion that lynching was a necessary measure to keep order.
The most notorious perpetrator of lynchings during Reconstruction was the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), which first appeared in Arkansas around 1868. The Klan’s initial motives were primarily to disrupt the 1868 elections and thereby prevent freed backs from voting for Republican candidates. The fall of 1868 witnessed a slew of lynchings as the November elections approached. Governor Powell Clayton sought to restore order by sending militia groups to combat the Klan. In one incident, Monticello (Drew County) sheriff William Dollar was kidnapped by fifteen masked men and tied to a black man, Fred Reeves. The two were then dragged 300 yards and shot. To signify the sheriff’s attitudes on racial matters, their bodies were posed in an embrace and left in the middle of the road to rot in the sun. In what had been largely a Unionist area, northwest Arkansas witnessed fewer lynchings in the late 1800s than other parts of the state, although in Fayetteville (Washington County), Klan members were reputed to have broken up church services held at all-black St. James Methodist Church.
The worst violence occurred in southern Arkansas. Little River County endured a number of lynchings during the Reconstruction era, while 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 death 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.
The number of lynchings perpetrated against blacks increased in the 1890s, when Jim Crow segregation statutes were implemented. Indeed, lynching remained a part of life in Arkansas as the state moved into the twentieth century. While lynching declined around the turn of the century, the ratio of black victims compared to whites rose steadily, peaking in the 1920s. The nature and methods of lynchings also became more gruesome and terrifying. The March 1904 lynching in St. Charles (Arkansas County) represented a particularly horrific example, in which thirteen black victims were murdered in a four-day frenzy of violence.
Lynching was closely related to the practice of racial cleansing. For example, the Harrison race riots of 1905 and 1909 in Harrison (Boone County) effectively drove all but one African American from the area—creating, through violence and intimidation, a virtually all-white community. Only one person was killed during the riots, in 1905, but the fear of lynching, especially in 1909, motivated black residents to flee. Municipalities throughout Arkansas forbade black people from living in a particular town, usually through campaigns of intimidation. Such “sundown towns” as Alix (Franklin County) were far more prevalent in the northern half of Arkansas (where more than 100 such towns existed) than in the rest of the state. In northern and western Arkansas, some entire counties, such as Boone and Polk, refused to allow black residents. Sundown towns were at their peak in the late 1960s, thus surviving long after lynching in Arkansas had declined.
Occasionally, lynching was sanctioned by Arkansas leaders, who inflamed racial passions as a means of achieving their own political ends. Former governor Jeff Davis (who was born in Sevier County in 1862 and served as governor of the state from 1901 to 1907) was quite willing to defend the practice of lynching. When President Theodore Roosevelt visited Arkansas in 1905, Davis famously remarked, “[W]e have come to a parting of the way with the Negro. If the brutal criminals of that race…lay unholy hands upon our fair daughters, nature is so riven and shocked that the dire compact produces a social cataclysm.” Thus lynching represented not only a way of asserting white supremacy but also a political tool wielded by demagogues.
On the evening of September 30, 1919, the notorious Elaine Massacre erupted, which marked the deadliest racial episode in Arkansas history. The lynchings and murders that occurred in Elaine arose out of white fear and distrust of a black union organization in Phillips County. A shooting at a church in Hoop Spur (Phillips County) sparked the conflict; the presence of about 100 sharecroppers attending a meeting of the Progressive Farmers and Household Union quickly spurred massive violence by whites against blacks throughout the county. Although the exact death toll remains unknown, historians have estimated that hundreds of black citizens were killed, while five whites died in the incident.
Perhaps the most notorious isolated lynching in Arkansas history is that of John Carter. In late April 1927, Little Rock (Pulaski County) witnessed mob violence against African Americans following the murder of a twelve-year-old white girl named Floella McDonald. The alleged murderer, Lonnie Dixon, was quietly spirited out of the city to Texarkana (Miller County) in order to avoid the growing mob of angry whites in the capital. Then, on May 4, 1927, thirty-seven-year-old black Little Rock resident John Carter was accused of assaulting a local white woman and her daughter. Enraged whites scoured the area in search of Carter. He was found late in the day, hung from a telephone pole, and shot. Later, his body was set ablaze and dragged through the streets of Little Rock to the corner of 9th and Broadway streets—the heart of the city’s black community.
This was the beginning of the end of lynching in Arkansas. Local business leaders and government officials were concerned that the negative publicity would hurt the state’s efforts both to attract investment and, more immediately, to garner federal relief funds in the wake of the Flood of 1927. By the early 1930s, a number of factors had combined to spell the end of lynching in the state: the spread of Progressive-era reforms (which led to improved law enforcement measures); the negative publicity surrounding extra-legal violence; the gradual unwillingness of the state government to ignore lynchings; and finally, the agitation of outside groups like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Jim Crow segregation of the 1890s was perhaps most influential in causing the demise of lynching, because disfranchisement and political marginalization of black Arkansans meant that they no longer posed a credible threat to white supremacy. As such, whites felt less of a need to strike out against them, and when they did, it was often a byproduct of white fears of miscegenation.
Finally, lynching declined because white Arkansans gradually relinquished control over meting out justice in favor of allowing the courts to decide criminal matters. Moreover, the slow but steady process of urbanization within the state led to larger and more effective law enforcement, which often proved willing to stand up to angry mobs and to investigate lynchings. Of the hundreds of lynchings that occurred in Arkansas in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, most were racially motivated. Yet beyond this fact, the causes of lynchings were myriad and resulted from a deadly combination of social, economic, and political factors.
For additional information: Buckelew, Richard. “Racial Violence in Arkansas: Lynchings and Mob Rule, 1860–1930.” PhD diss., University of Arkansas, 1999.
Finley, Randy. From Slavery to Uncertain Freedom: The Freedmen’s Bureau in Arkansas, 1865–68. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1996.
Greer, Brian D. “The Last Lynching: A New Look at Little Rock’s Last Episode of Deadly Mob Justice.” Arkansas Times. August 4, 2000, pp. 12–19.
Hill, Karlos. “Black Vigilantism: The Rise and Decline of African American Lynch Mob Activity in the Mississippi and Arkansas Deltas.” Journal of African American History 95 (Winter 2010): 26–43.
———. “Resisting Lynching: Black Grassroots Responses to Lynching in the Mississippi and Arkansas Deltas, 1882–1938.” PhD diss., University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 2009.
Lewis, Todd. “Mob Justice in the ‘American Congo’: ‘Judge Lynch’ in Arkansas during the Decade after World War I.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 52 (Summer 1993): 156–184.
Moneyhon, Carl. The Impact of Civil War and Reconstruction on Arkansas. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1994.
Stockley, Grif. Blood in Their Eyes: The Elaine Race Massacres of 1919. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2001.
“The Body Count: Lynching in Arkansas.” History Matters. http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5467/ (accessed October 22, 2014).
Vinikas, Vincent. “Specters in the Past: The Saint Charles, Arkansas, Lynching of 1904 and the Limits of Historical Inquiry.” Journal of Southern History 65 (August 1999): 535–564.
Whayne, Jeannie M. “Low Villains and Wickedness in High Places: Race and Class in the Elaine Riots.” Arkansas Historical Quarterly 58 (Autumn 1999): 285–313.
Brent E. RiffelUniversity of Arkansas, Fayetteville
Last Updated 1/19/2016
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