West Memphis revisited

Race-divided city now finds blacks pitted against one another.

| November 14, 2012

"The Perfect Racial Storm," the title given to the Arkansas Times' Feb. 8, 2008, cover story following the 2007 shooting death of 12-year-old DeAunta Farrow by a West Memphis policeman, has proven to be an understated metaphor for what is transpiring in Crittenden County these days. The furor in the black community over the child's death that brought New York City activist Al Sharpton to West Memphis to preach at his funeral was nothing more than a spring rain compared to the torrent of accusations, protests and litigation that has followed in the last four years since I wrote that article.

Some of the bitterest recent public recriminations in the black community in Crittenden County have been internal as reformers publicly accuse other African Americans, including local, state and national officials, of corruption and selling out their own people. These charges have been denied and counter-charges have been made accusing the reformers of being interested only in acquiring power and publicity.

By way of contrast, this fall much of the country (outside the South at least) was held spellbound by the astonishing spectacle of two of the once least-likely contenders for the presidency imaginable — a mixed-race but self-identified African American with a suspicious name, and a member of the Mormon faith — jousting for the most powerful job in the world. In public presentations by the candidates race was not an issue. But, of course, race was an issue since literally millions of Americans, black and white, including Arkansans, voted for a candidate who looked like them.

Is race really such an issue in the Delta? Reads a caption from an article in the November 2012 issue of National Geographic about the beatings suffered by former VISTA volunteers who created Respect Inc., an umbrella organization for Arkansas civil rights groups in the late 1960s: "The Delta has something going for it: Race is always out on the table in plain view and is sometimes honestly discussed."

The operative phrase here is "sometimes honestly discussed." Even those who take offense at one more sad portrait of Arkansas's racial past cannot really be surprised at the continuing uproar. As historians of Arkansas race relations now document on a regular basis, the state's reputation was purchased by an unwavering commitment to white supremacy, implemented by slavery, murder, rape, lynching, racial massacres, segregation, massive stealing of resources intended for the black community, disfranchisement, racial cleansing, discrimination, and an official and unofficial recounting of racial history that bordered on propaganda.

Many older black citizens, particularly in the Arkansas Delta, remember white supremacy as a bare-knuckled affair well into the 1960s, no apologies expected for vigilante behavior and misconduct by white law enforcement. Indeed, as detailed in the Times' 2008 article, Crittenden County itself was a perennial poster child for the state's historical commitment to the implementation of white supremacy through peonage, lynching, outrageous disparities in educational funding and unequal justice. Articles and photographs from West Memphis and Crittenden County appeared in national publications such as Time and LIFE, chronicling some of the white South's most notorious excesses, indeed, rivaling the horror of Emmett Till's 1954 murder across the river in Money, Miss.

By 1980 the civil rights movement in Arkansas was already a trip down memory lane. Republican Winthrop Rockefeller's two terms as governor had paved the way for a more restrained and hopeful racial atmosphere within the state. Black voting, which had made the difference in both Rockefeller's elections, was taken very seriously, especially by blacks themselves. In West Memphis, of all places, where one in three persons in 1980 was African American, Leo Chitman, a black man, was elected mayor with 16 percent of the vote in a six-person race that had no provision for a run-off. Suddenly, this act was deemed undemocratic, and over the loud protests of the state NAACP, at the first opportunity the Arkansas legislature crafted a law that required majority elections (run-offs) in all county and local races. (The law has been slightly amended since.)


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