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Isadore Banks, a fifty-nine-year-old prominent African-American landowner, disappeared on June 4, 1954. Banks’s wife, Alice, last saw him as he left the house with the intention of paying his farmhands. On or about June 8, 1954, Banks’s truck was discovered in a wooded property just outside of Marion (Crittenden County) by Carl Croom, a neighboring landowner. Banks’s loaded shotgun and coat were still inside. Authorities found Banks’s body tied to a tree, mutilated, and burned beyond recognition. Banks had been drenched with fuel and burned from the knees up. A can of gasoline was found close to the body. The coroner, T. H. McGough, found no sign of robbery or struggle at the scene, indicating that the killing may have occurred elsewhere, with the 300-pound body of Banks likely carried by several people to the site. The coroner also reported that either a knife or firearm discharge left a hole in Banks’s right side. Banks’s murder, one of Arkansas’s most notorious cold cases of the civil rights era, came on the heels of a wave of lynchings in Vrendenburg and Birmingham, Alabama; Cleveland, Ohio; and Charleston, South Carolina.
Isadore Banks was born on July 15, 1895, a period of Arkansas history when violence against African Americans was once again on the rise. By 1900, African Americans throughout Arkansas had been cut out of the political process and were living in constant fear, with lynching quickly becoming the main form of control of black people. As historian Grif Stockley explains, “Not only did lynching reduce the desire of blacks to participate as equals in society, it served, as well, to indoctrinate whites” to the fact that African Americans could be treated with contempt without fear of retribution. Jim Crow laws were in full effect during the early 1900s, and, as Stockley explains, “Arkansas whites had constructed a superstructure of racial dominance so strong that from the inside it all but seemed unchallengeable.”
In April 1917, the United States entered World War I. A year later, at age twenty-two, Banks joined the army and fought in the war. After returning to Arkansas, Banks began work at a utility company laying lines and support poles, bringing electricity to the town of Marion, as well as surrounding communities.
Unfortunately, little changed in Arkansas after World War I. In the summer of 1919, numerous race riots broke out as inflation and unemployment mixed with the persistent racism of the day. Realizing they were no closer to being treated as equals, African Americans throughout Arkansas and all over the Delta region began to organize. After an altercation near the town of Elaine (Phillips County) ended in the death of a white man, the Elaine Massacre broke out, resulting in the slaughter of numerous black men, women, and children. The return of the Ku Klux Klan to Arkansas in the 1920s, and then the Great Depression, brought even more misery to the Delta region.
Despite these obstacles, Banks had become a prominent and respected leader, a Freemason, and one of the wealthiest African-American landowners in this region of Arkansas, known for its racially violent past. Banks is reported to have owned more than 1,000 acres of land, which he farmed or leased to tenants, and a number of businesses. Banks helped other black farmers with loans to buy seeds and farm equipment and supported the local black school with supplies.
A number of theories have emerged to explain the motive behind the 1954 murder. The first suggests that Banks had refused to sell his land to a number of white men, who were angered by his repeated refusals and became violent. The second theory holds that Banks was renting land from a white woman, and white farmers wanted that land and killed him to gain access to it. A third theory echoes an oft-cited premise behind brutal lynchings: Banks may have been romantically involved with a white woman; that relationship could not be tolerated, and so he was killed. Finally, it has been suggested that Banks had been involved in an altercation with some white men who propositioned his daughter, and the murder occurred in response.
Little to no investigation was carried out by local law enforcement. The Grant Co-op Gin, run by a group of prominent black citizens of Crittenden County including Banks, offered a reward of $1,000 for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the perpetrators. No one came forward with any information, no arrests were made, and no one was prosecuted in connection with this brutal murder. L. C. Bates, a prominent civil rights advocate in Arkansas, and the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) reached out to help in the investigation but to no avail. Julian Fogleman, the city attorney for Marion in 1954, was asked in August 2010 about the murder and its aftermath but could not recall whether a coroner’s inquiry was even performed. Fogleman claimed that no one ever came forward with any information and that was likely why no investigation was carried out.
The murder of Isadore Banks dealt a severe blow to the African-American community of Crittenden County. The case remains on the list of civil rights–era cold cases that are under review by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Nearly five decades after his death, Banks was given military honors in recognition of his service in World War I. His family continues to search for answers about this brutal crime.
For additional information:“Burned, Tied Body of a Negro is Found in Marion Vicinity.” Arkansas Gazette, June 10, 1954, p. 1B.
“Chain Arkansas Farmer to Tree, Set Him Afire.” Chicago Defender, June 26, 1954, p. 5.
“Chained to Tree, Burned to Death.” Pittsburgh Courier, June 19, 1954, p. 1.
“Charred Body is Still a Mystery.” Arkansas State Press, June 18, 1954, p. 1.
Drash, Wayne. “50 Years after He Was Chained and Set Afire, WWI Hero is Honored.” CNN.com, April 12, 2010. Online at http://www.cnn.com/2010/CRIME/04/06/isadore.banks.cold.case/index.html (accessed November 30, 2010).
“Negros Death is Believed Murder.” Crittenden County Times, June 12, 1954, p. 1.
N. Tasmin Din and Brian HilburnCivil Rights & Restorative Justice ProjectNortheastern University School of Law
Last Updated 2/18/2011
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