When the sharecroppers got together to discuss how to unionize, they knew they were doing something dangerous. After all, black people in the United States didn’t just decide they wanted to get a fair shake of things. After all, historically speaking, why would they think that was even possible? And in 1919, especially in the South, there was no way they were going to get fair prices for the cotton they had spent months growing and cultivating, unless they worked together. Even as they headed into the meeting at the church, they were nervous. Nervous enough to hire guards to be on the look out. But what happened was beyond their worst imaginings.
A white mob of law enforcement as well as other members of the town of Elaine, Arkansas began shooting into the church and ran off the people in it – including women and children. Many fled for their lives into the surrounding woods and fields and many more were gunned down as they tried to run. It is estimated around 250 blacks were killed over that night and the next few days.
Many black men were arrested and falsely charged with inciting a race riot. The white citizens of Elaine demanded that the black men be executed and if they didn’t get their way, they planned to storm the jail and lynch them all. A panel of white men decided they would hold trials quickly and find them all guilty of murder. It looked completely hopeless for twelve men in particular.
Enter Scipio Africanus Jones, a man who had been born into slavery and through perseverance and determination, became a self taught lawyer. Scipio Jones, by 1919 was a well known lawyer from Little Rock, and had gained the respect of quite a few white lawyers and judges in that area because he was just that impressive in his knowledge and his eloquence. Jones began what became one of the most important fights of his life, the fight to save the Elaine 12 from certain execution in the electric chair. His journey would be at a huge personal cost and would eventually lead him to the Supreme Court of the nation, and ultimately change the course of constitutional law and the application of the 14th amendment of the Constitution to black Americans.
Recommended for grades 7 and up.