Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Nightriding and Racial Cleansing in the Arkansas River Valley

Academic journal article The Arkansas Historical Quarterly

Nightriding and Racial Cleansing in the Arkansas River Valley

Article excerpt

Carolyn Wagner recalled for the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intel- ligence Report how, on a summer night in 1965, she witnessed her father and other local Klansmen tie a young black man to a tree and whip him for violating an unwritten "sundown rule" enforced in the Booneville, Arkansas, area. This rule made it a crime for black people to be around after dark.1 Booneville, lying at the southern boundaries of the Arkansas River Valley, has been dubbed a "sundown town," usually defined as a community or neighborhood whose white residents either: 1) had driven African Americans away at some point in the past, usually violently; and/ or 2) worked to keep African Americans from settling there, often through campaigns of organized harassment. These "sundown towns" occurred, for the most part, outside the South of lowland cotton agriculture, where slaves lived and worked in large numbers before the Civil War and where many African Americans continued to dwell even after emancipation.

However, the term "sundown town" is of limited utility as it can ob- scure the varying motivations behind-and the varied instigators of-ex- pulsive acts directed against African Americans. William Walters' geneal- ogy of deportation identifies different sorts of expulsion, including:

1) Exile or banishment, an ancient practice employed specifically "against the individual who is understood to be a member of the polit- ical community or nation" in question.2

2) The expulsion of the poor in early modem Europe, typified by En- gland's Act of Settlement and Removal of 1662, which made paupers liable to expulsion from any parish save their home parish.

3) Corporate expulsion, as exemplified by the 1492 expulsion of the Jews from Spain or the 1688 expulsion of Irish Catholics from Ulster. As Walters notes, "Corporate expulsion can be seen as a tool of state formation, occurring against the backdrop of the breakup of the uni- versal church."3

4) The transportation of convicts, which combined "the tactics of exile and forced removal with projects of territorial colonization and economic exploitation."4

5) Population transfers of the post-World War I era, which operated "on a biopolitical territory where difference is marked indelibly."5

These forms of expulsion were carried out by political elites against targeted criminals, political or ideological others, outsiders or migrants, and racial others. But in Arkansas and elsewhere in the South, not all at- tempts at expulsion were carried out by, or with the approbation of, local elites. Nightriding or whitecapping followed a long-established tradition of vigilante violence in which "bands of armed white men . . . engaged in what they viewed as community 'regulation' and retaliation, moving against those who violated norms, transgressed boundaries, or threatened livelihoods."6 These targets might include members of the local elite. In many areas, as the economy in the late nineteenth century soured, white- cappers targeted cotton merchants and revenue agents, but they also began attacking African Americans whom they viewed as infringing upon their opportunities, specifically those who "rented farms, owned land, or otherwise worked for merchants or large planters," as well as those who had found "alternative employment in newly opened lumber camps and sawmills."7 As historian Jeannie Whayne notes, for many lower-class whites, tenant farming could be the first rung on the ladder to actual land ownership, and so the "presence of lower-paid black sharecroppers sim- ply worked against their economic interests."8

An attempt to drive off black competition would certainly seem to be related to the emergence of sundown towns, which occurred during a period when whitecapper violence was particularly widespread. But such vigilantism occurred even in those regions that did not ultimately go sun- down, including the delta region of eastern Arkansas, where elite invest- ment in cheap black labor resulted in nightriders, unlike participants in lynch mobs, occasionally facing arrest, having their identities revealed, and being convicted. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.