The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow A Century of Segregation
Jim Crow Stories
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Jim Crow Stories

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Moore V. Dempsey (1922)
The Taft Court
The case known as Moore v. Dempsey was a major legal victory for the NAACP in 1923. The case involved twelve black farmers in Arkansas who were sentenced to death for allegedly killing whites during a riot. Five white men had been killed during the Elaine, Arkansas, riot of 1919, some probably shot accidentally by other whites. Over 700 blacks had been arrested, sixty-seven sent to prison, and twelve farmers tried by an all-white jury for the murder of whites. During the trial a mob surrounded the court building, shouting that if the accused black men were not sentenced to death, the mob would lynch them. Prisoners were tortured to confess or testify against others. Alf Banks, one of the twelve, told his lawyer, "I was frequently whipped and also put in an electric chair and shocked and strangling drugs would be put in my nose to make me tell that others had killed or shot at white people and to force me to testify against them." The all-white jury debated the charges less than eight minutes per man; each defendant was found guilty. Each defendant was found guilty. The judge dutifully sentenced all 12 to death. The mob cheered. As far as Arkansas was concerned, the case was closed.The judge dutifully sentenced all 12 to death. The mob cheered. As far as Arkansas was concerned, the case was closed. But for Walter White of the NAACP, the case was far from closed. As far as White was concerned, the trial was a lynching that wore the mask of law. White traveled to Arkansas posing as a newspaper reporter, first interviewing the governor (who, deceived by White's fair complexion, called him "one of the most brilliant newspapermen he had ever met") and then traveling to Phillips County, the scene of the massacre." White publicized his findings and the NAACP hired local white and black lawyers to appeal the death sentence. One of the lawyers was Scipio Africanus Jones, an African American born into slavery. Although the sentences of six of the defendants were upheld on appeal, six others were sent back for retrial on technicalities. Jones and other local attorneys argued that the presence of the mob outside the court during the trial made it impossible for the defendants to have a fair trial. On February 19, 1923, the Supreme Court agreed. In a landmark decision (Moore v. Dempsey) that became a major step in defending the rights of black defendants, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote: "If the whole case is a mask -- that counsel, jury and judge were swept to the fatal end by an irresistible tide of public passion, and the state courts refuse to correct the wrong, then nothing can prevent this court from securing to the petitioners their constitutional rights." The case was sent back to the lower courts and Arkansas finally freed all 12 men.

-- Richard Wormser

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Did you Know ...

The chief justice of the Court when this decision was handed down was former president Howard Taft.
Related Pages
THE ELAINE RIOT: Tragedy & Triumph
Walter White
The Red Summer
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