FEBRUARY 19, 1923

Elaine Defendants, Helena, Phillips County, Ark., ca. 1910 Credit: Butler Center for Arkansas Studies, Bobby L. Roberts Library of Arkansas History and Art, Central Arkansas Library System

In Moore v. Dempsey, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-2 that mob-dominated trials violated the due process clause of the 14th Amendment. 

On Sept. 30, 1919, Black sharecroppers had gathered in a church at Elaine, Arkansas, to discuss fairer prices for their products. White men fired into the church, leading to three days of fighting and the reported killing of five white men and more than 100 Black men, women and children. It was part of the wave of violence against African Americans during “Red Summer,” and one that crusading journalist Ida B. Wells wrote about. 

Two days after the attack, U.S. Army troops arrived, and several hundred Black Americans were placed in stockades and reportedly tortured. A grand jury eventually charged 122 black men, but none of the white men responsible for the violence. The first dozen were sent to death row. The next 65 pleaded guilty. 

On appeal, attorney Scipio Africanus Jones, the NAACP and others represented the “Elaine Twelve” on appeal, winning when the Supreme Court concluded that the trial had been prejudiced by a white mob outside yelling that if the Black men weren’t sentenced to death, the mob would lynch them. A memorial now honors the victims of the Elaine Massacre.

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The stories of investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell have helped put four Klansmen and a serial killer behind bars. His stories have also helped free two people from death row, exposed injustices and corruption, prompting investigations and reforms as well as the firings of boards and officials. He is a Pulitzer Prize finalist, a longtime member of Investigative Reporters & Editors, and a winner of more than 30 other national awards, including a $500,000 MacArthur “genius” grant. After working for three decades for the statewide Clarion-Ledger, Mitchell left in 2019 and founded the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting.