By J. Chester Johnson

a review by Greg Reed

Chester Johnson, a historian and poet, documents in great detail the events and effects of the race-based massacre in and around Elaine, Arkansas in 1919 where over 100 were killed and a community devastated. He grew up in the next county from Elaine but never heard the story. During his journey into the history of this event he discovers that a grandfather whom he loved dearly, and was a father figure for him, was one of those who participated in the killing. He was shocked and disturbed to say the least. He sought to understand a man he knew but didn’t know. His journey also brought him in contact with Sheila Walker whose ancestors had been murdered – possibly by Chester’s grandfather. The book is mostly about the two of them telling their stories, their reactions, their feelings and finding their need for reconciliation. We cannot change the past but we can change the present and the future. We study the painful past to learn from it and to try to not make the same mistakes. So how did an otherwise good grandfather (and many others) go so wrong in 1919?

Hate. Chester Johnson explores how it can so easily creep into the human psyche since it has been an all too frequent visitor to human history. Even people who think of themselves as followers of Jesus can get swept into the clutches of hate – sometimes motivated by greed, sometimes by fear, maybe by guilt, and so forth. Hatred, once unleashed, is difficult to control. Hatred leads to death of all that is good. Jesus is well aware of this flaw and commands his followers to choose love in all things. Paul spoke so eloquently about the necessary qualities of love in 1 Corinthians 13.

Matt. 22:37-39, Mark 12: 30-31, Luke 10: 27, and John 13:34 all testify to the necessity of loving God with our whole being and to love others as ourselves – even those we think we detest or we think of as enemies. Even the early church had to be reminded that love and hate cannot coexist. In 1 John 3:15 “Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.” In 1 John 4:20 “If anyone says I love God and hates his brother, he is a liar;”. After almost 2000 years the people who claim Jesus are still struggling with hate. This book also explores how do “good” people go wrong?  There are many paths to disobedience to God’s commands but one prevalent path is the “herd effect” – going along with the crowd. Psychologists have researched the tendency of humans to do things as part of a crowd that they would never do on their own.  This is sometimes referred to as the madness of crowds. It is easily observed in crowds that turn violent in present day America. But this madness would not have an opening if there wasn’t already a seed of hate present.

Tragically, race-based killings aren’t only an Elaine story. Since the Civil War there have been over 6000 race-based lynchings. Just two years after the Elaine massacre there was a similar event in Tulsa, Oklahoma with around 300 killed, 800 hospitalized, and 6000 left homeless after $32 million of property was burned. Both stories were buried in history. No one held accountable. No one brought to justice for the murders. The people who lost their property and livelihood were not compensated. Is this only a Southern story?  I think not. I grew up in the North during the 1950s and early 1960s. I can remember seeing news reports about what was happening in the South but not what was happening where I lived. I grew up in an all-white small city. While not often as violent, it was no less racially biased. One summer a back family moved into our subdivision. They were gone by the time school started. I remember thinking “How are we basically any different from what is happening in the South?” Fortunately for me, my family attended a small Baptist church (the only one in the county) that taught that all persons, regardless of color, are God’s children.  I can remember singing “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world, red and yellow, black and white, they are all precious in his sight” that made a point to me that there is only one race in God’s eyes – the human race. Is that the point of the Elaine story? Remember Jesus. We are all neighbors. Love your neighbor.

This book calls for us to know the truth and ponder its meaning in our lives and those around us. At the dedication of a memorial erected to commemorate the Elaine massacre, Chester Johnson read a poem he wrote for the occasion, which I think sums up his journey;

They will end; all of them will end:
Words to flare a conflagration.

 They will end; all of them will end:
The plots setting hue against hue.
Yes, they will end. 

But time and river shall
Never end; for they begin
To begin, again and over again,
As time and the river wash
Through the land, and over
Its dreams, schemes,
And lauded and unlauded past.

We’ve told our stories here
While others listened,
Thinking mainly of our own:
Of those who died killing,
Or of those who found
No finding of an escape
From onslaught upon onslaught.      

Now, we gaze on the Memorial,
Which tells of days
That went unclaimed,
Which tells things a hundred years
Of the Elaine Race Massacre
Did not care to hear: that
All history is a struggle
Between what we must end
And what we must begin;

As time and the river ever
Flow between now and then
And delay for neither those
We honor here nor those
Who have or will come here.

Of time and the river,
Beckoning no escape,
Leaves no choice:
So, we shall no longer wait
For more light, nor wait
For other dreams that we
May better inspire dreams.

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