Columns » Jay Barth

Remember the 1927 lynching in Little Rock

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It is natural to try to forget painful or embarrassing events — it's true for an individual and it's true for a community.

For several generations, most residents of Little Rock did not know the story of John Carter as it was kept under wraps by the white community. But many African-American residents knew. The story of the last known lynching in Little Rock was passed down through oral history, in the African-American community, communicated from parent to child as a warning of the worst traits of the intricate system of apartheid in which they were growing up in the state's capitol city.

John Carter was brutally lynched in the spring of 1927, in a period of intense racial tension in the city. This high tension had begun with the discovery of the body of a 12-year-old white girl in the belfry of the First Presbyterian Church in downtown Little Rock. The church janitor, who found the body, and his biracial nephew were arrested for the murder. To avoid mob justice, officials relocated the men to Texarkana until their trials could occur. A penal farm escapee named John Carter took their place in the rabid white community's bull's-eye after being accused of a sexual assault on two women in a rural area near where I-630 and I-430 now converge.

An armed group searched for Carter, found him, hung him from a telephone pole and shot him. Cars then dragged Carter's body through the streets of the city, finally stopping at 9th and Broadway — then the heart of the city's African-American business community. The horror continued as a crowd estimated at 5,000 whites converged on the area, setting Carter's now-mangled body afire and keeping the fire stoked with furniture from black businesses and churches in the neighborhood. Thus, the vigilante attack on one accused criminal became an attack on the entire African American community.

While absent from the official community history of Little Rock for most of the 20th century — despite its widespread coverage in national newspapers at the time — historians have begun to retell the story of Carter's murder in recent years. Those writers have not just recounted the events but recognized their importance in shaping African-American perceptions of what it meant to be a resident of a white-dominated S outhern city. In many ways, the tale of John Carter played the role that the killing of Emmett Till, the Chicago teen killed while visiting relatives in Mississippi in 1955 for "whistling" at a white woman, did elsewhere in the South. Members of the Little Rock Nine report the Carter lynching's centrality to the worries about their own safety in the midst of the 1957 Crisis.

While a small display on the event can be found inside the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center on that corner, it's time for Little Rock to remember what happened in 1927 with a public marker at 9th and Broadway. This visible marker should include a frank narrative recounting of the events surrounding Carter's death. A memorial in Duluth, Minn., serves as one example of a city that has created a tasteful public memorial to a lynching that was central to that city's racial history. The memorial in Little Rock should not be just about one murder, however. It should include an admission of the city's secular sin in creating a system where the killing of John Carter could occur and perpetuating a system after 1927 that would allow more generations of black residents to fear for their personal safety simply because of the color of their skin.

Building on last year's vote to rescind the city resolution praising Governor Faubus for trying to block the Little Rock Nine's entrance into Central High, the Little Rock City Board should work to create a representative task force to ascertain the manner in which the Carter incident could most appropriately be remembered with a physical marker.

Until then, as you sit in your car at the light on that corner or at one of the fast-food restaurant drive-thru windows that dot the area around it, think of the events of 85 years ago. More importantly, think of their long-term meaning for this community.

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