On the Laps of Gods
The Red Summer of 1919 and the Struggle for Justice That Remade a Nation
By Robert Whitaker
(Crown, Hardcover, 9780307339829, 400pp.)
Publication Date: June 10, 2008
Other Editions of This Title: Paperback
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They shot them down like rabbits . . .
September 30, 1919. The United States teetered on the edge of a racial civil war. During the previous three months, racial fighting had erupted in twenty-five cities. And deep in the Arkansas Delta, black sharecroppers were meeting in a humble wooden church, forming a union and making plans to sue their white landowners, who for years had cheated them out of their fair share of the cotton crop. A car pulled up outside the church . . .
What happened next has long been shrouded in controversy.
In this heartbreaking but ultimately triumphant story of courage and will, journalist Robert Whitaker carefully documents—and exposes—one of the worst racial massacres in American history. Over the course of several days, posses and federal troops gunned down more than one hundred men, women, and children.
But that is just the beginning of this astonishing story. White authorities also arrested more than three hundred black farmers, and in trials that lasted only a few hours, all-white juries sentenced twelve of the union leaders to die in the electric chair. One of the juries returned a death verdict after two minutes of deliberation.
All hope seemed lost, and then an extraordinary lawyer from Little Rock stepped forward: Scipio Africanus Jones. Jones, who’d been born a slave, joined forces with the NAACP to mount an appeal in which he argued that his clients’ constitutional rights to a fair trial had been violated. Never before had the U.S. Supreme Court set aside a criminal verdict in a state court because the proceedings had been unfair, so the state of Arkansas, confident of victory, had a carpenter build coffins for the men.
We all know the names of the many legendary heroes that emerged from the civil rights movement: Thurgood Marshall, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King Jr. among them. Whitaker’s important book commemorates a legal struggle, Moore v. Dempsey, that paved the way for that later remaking of our country, and tells too of a man, Scipio Africanus Jones, whose name surely deserves to be known by all Americans.
ROBERT WHITAKER is the award-winning author of The Mapmaker’s Wife and Mad in America. His manuscript of On the Laps of Gods won the prestigious J. Anthony Lukas Work-in-Progress Award.
"One of the fifty best nonfiction books of 2008."
—San Francisco Chronicle
"Whitaker has . . . placed the massacre and the Supreme Court decision in their full legal and historical context. At the same time, he has revived the story of a great African American
lawyer, Scipio Africanus Jones."
—New York Times Book Review
"Robert Whitaker unearths a dark historical event in a creative and powerful way. Don't miss this book!"
–Cornel West, author of Race Matters
“State-sponsored terrorism is not a new phenomenon in American history; for nearly a century, it was part of the daily lot of African Americans living in the Jim Crow South. Nowhere was that reality more brutally revealed than in Phillips County, Arkansas, where in 1919 a white mob, deputized by state authorities and assisted by units of the U.S. Army, slaughtered some two hundred men, women, and children – sharecroppers whose sole offense was organizing to obtain a fair price for the cotton they grew. Robert Whitaker has reconstructed this long-forgotten episode in riveting detail. His book plumbs the depths of hatred and injustice, yet it is also a story of hope, embodied in the unlikely figure of attorney Scipio Africanus Jones, a former slave, whose dogged defense of survivors of the massacre prevented a legal lynching and changed the face of American jurisprudence.
—James T. Campbell, author of Middle Passages: African American Journeys to Africa, 1787-2005, finalist for the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in History and winner of the Mark Lynton History Prize
“At the heart of this masterful narrative is Scipio Jones, a man born a slave, who became one of this country's greatest lawyers. During the awful period of racial ethnic cleansing that convulsed our country for so long, Jones turned an American tragedy into an American triumph. Bob Whitaker gives an account of a footnote of our history that is at the heart of what we aim at our best, to be as a nation. On these pages, there is an admirable and confident understanding of the ultimate scale of these events. Whitaker casts an unstinting eye back at America's brutal racial past and the power of individuals, black and white to shape individual and national destiny.”
—Marita Golden, author of Don't Play in the Sun: One Woman's Journey Through the Color Complex
“Like the classic Gideon's Trumpet, On theLaps of Gods tells the dramatic story of how extraordinary citizens fought for a basic right–in this case to a fair and proper trial–that became fundamental to our national identity. This tale alone, and Whitaker's portrayal of attorney Scipio Africanus Jones, would have made for a great book, but he gives us much more as he brings alive the tragic and oft-forgotten details of racial violence in the American heartland and reveals a history that can make us weep and also cheer. Startling, artful, and filled with truth, this is an important and compelling book.”
—Michael D'Antonio, author of The State Boys Rebellion and Hershey