The Conscience of the County
Just north of Helena, Arkansas, the tough little St. Francis River empties into the mighty Mississippi River. The confluence of these two streams attracts boaters, water skiers, and fishermen. I suppose what draws them is the juxtaposition of the relative safety of the smaller stream with the imminent danger of the much larger river. For me it is a place to sit and think, to contemplate other points of confluence, each one the end of something and the beginning of something else.
I love my “Twin Cities” hometown of Helena-West Helena, Arkansas.
Years ago a promotional slogan captured my feelings, “The Ridge, the River, the Romance.” It was all there in Helena and Phillips County:
- Going north meant the southern tip of Crowley’s ridge with lakes and logging roads, forests and hidden fields, springs by the side of the road, cemeteries with their secrets of long ago and the convenience of both a high and a low road for ready exploration.
- South of Helena the alluvial plane invited the leisurely drive to Elaine and points south. Somewhere down there the roads just stopped, the rich soil was made for planting and harvest not for Sunday afternoon drives.
- There was music of all kinds: both Southern Gospel and Black Gospel, big band and blues with Sunshine Sonny Payne as the living link to both, a great symphonic band tradition and a newer but just as excellent choral tradition at Central High School. There was always worship music to be made in Helena-West Helena, from Temple Beth El to St. Mary’s to high and low Christian worship at Protestant churches on street corners.
- We had theatre, not just the movie houses on Cherry Street and the Drive In in West Helena, we had live theatre at the old Helena High School. With Central High School and the Helena Little Theatre, that stage was the first of many for me. We had a place for talented people as we “trod the boards” and began learning our various theatrical crafts.
- The County Library was a refuge during the hot summers. Rows and rows of books, a music room in the back, and a museum just up the stairs provided endless respite for young minds, curious about life and weary of the humidity.
- Of course, there was always The River, just east of everything, always sliding south, unstoppable to the Gulf of Mexico, draining half of America. The abundant levies promised safety from The River but we never quite believed it. Stories of the floods of 1927 and 1937 frightened us young folks but the levies held in our floods of 1973 and 1974. Still, how many towns in Arkansas had a sea wall? Yes, there was always The River.
- The Helena Bridge made it easy to get to Mississippi and to the straight shot up to Memphis on the Blues Highway, Highway 61. To this day, I locate my hometown to friends by telling them, “We have the next bridge south of Memphis.” I have vague but menacing memories of “The Ferry,” the only way to get to my mother’s family in Mississippi before the bridge was built. We got lost in the fog one night and the Captain could not find the landing on the Mississippi side. I was about 4 years old. I will never forget the searchlights on the ferry stabbing the fog as we made attempt after attempt with unknown, unstoppable river traffic bearing down on us.
The Ridge, the River, and the Romance
Yes it was all there, like a small friendly stream, rolling its way south. Suddenly, in the 1960s, there was a convergence with a much larger and more dangerous stream. Most of us were unaware of the flow of American life happening as we made our music, performed our plays, relaxed at our library, and explored the county roads. We were living at the confluence of an old way of living and a new one. The truth is, we all shared the River and the Ridge, but not the Romance.
In the United States, gravity was pulling society toward a different destination, one of true freedom for all. Somehow this surprised us. We were the first TV generation. On Saturday morning Superman stood in front of the American flag promising, “the American way—Truth and Justice for All!” but we were blind to the lies and injustice all around us. We drove through the pockets of poverty to get to our recreation spots quickly keeping our eyes on the road. We simply did not see the poverty and injustice at our feet so the awareness of it never came close to our hearts.
Integration and desegregation changed all of that. Suddenly the two rivers merged: the friendly stream of white Southern life flowed into dangerous river of change draining the country of the accumulated debris of systematized corruption and codified injustice. There was no romance in this confluence.
At this moment of societal flood, a secret began to emerge like a rock swept clean from layers of silt—The Elaine Massacre of 1919. For almost one hundred years this terrible event has been covered up with lies and denial. Recent books have told the truth, forever removing the misnomer, “The Elaine Race Riot.” Now it is time to face the truth. It is time for shame to work its healing balm; there is no cure for this except repentance and forgiveness. No one involved in the massacre is alive today. As the murderers and the conspirators lie in their manicured graves and the unnumbered slain lie in unmarked ones, those of us who are alive and remain must deal with what really happened. It will hurt. It will frighten, but it is work that we must do. Repentance made, even for the deeds of others, seeks for forgiveness to be granted. Both of these things must happen to bring healing to these long-festering wounds.
Some will protest: “I wasn’t there. I have no responsibility in this matter.”
Those who think this way are still in the little, friendly river of self-deceit. The big river is about to swallow them up. Their only chance for survival is to settle this matter in their own hearts. Growing up in Helena-West Helena, Phillips County, we were soaked in prejudice and injustice. If we contribute to the cover up we share the blame and so we must also share the shame. We must earnestly seek forgiveness from those we, and those who bore us, have injured. We must shake off this fear of what the black people might do.
- This was the fear that drove the killers into the killing fields of Elaine in 1919.
- This is the fear that fueled the cover up for nearly a century.
This has to stop! This fear is unfounded. I do not believe the African-American community of Phillips County seeks revenge. We all want the same thing, “truth and justice in the American way.”
The Bible says that God visits the sins of the fathers on their children to the third and fourth generation. This is a sad fact of life, evident in anyone’s study of history. The only thing that stops this generation to generation accumulation of guilt is forgiveness, the forgiveness of God and of the ones sinned against. Some believe that Phillips County is under a curse because of this terrible slaughter and the injustices of its aftermath. I don’t pretend to know how to solve all the problems remaining more than a century after Jim Crow and the Elaine Massacre. I only know that solutions will come after repentance is made and forgiveness is granted. These things will not be easy for either side but until they happen, all efforts of revitalization of the wonderful place called Helena-West Helena and Phillips County will be limited in their effect.
It is time to break the generation to generation transfer of deceit and injustice. I appeal to the conscience of the county.
Dr. Stephen Phifer
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