The Supreme Court of the United States issued its ruling in the case of Moore v. Dempsey in 1923.

By a 6–2 margin, the Court said that the trials of six of the Elaine 12 – Frank Moore, Frank and Ed Hicks, Joe Knox, Paul Hall and Ed Coleman – were dominated by mobs.

Therefore, the Court decided that the men were deprived of due process guaranteed by the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and reversed a decision by a federal district court in Arkansas that denied the petitioners’ plea for a writ of habeas corpus following their convictions for murder.

In what follows, I will connect the dots between that decision and the injustice that is pervasive in what I insist should be called the criminal legal and punishment system – not the criminal justice system – in the United States.

The U.S. criminal legal and punishment system is unjust now, as it was in 1919 when white vigilantes attacked Black families in Elaine, Arkansas. The vigilantes were joined by Arkansas Governor Charles Brough and U.S. troops from Camp Pike who took a train from Little Rock to Phillips County.

In 1919, white civilians, politicians and armed troops massacred hundreds of Black men, women and children. None of the white perpetrators of the Elaine Massacre of 1919 were prosecuted.

Instead, Black people – most notably, the Elaine 12 – were prosecuted, tried, convicted and sentenced to die for the deaths of five white men, despite indications that some of the white men were killed by white vigilantes.

The Black survivors of the Elaine Massacre were told to be calm, go to work and trust the criminal punishment system while Governor Brough and the white political, legal, religious and business community in Phillips County and across Arkansas blamed Black people for the massacre.

The largest dining facility on the main campus of the University of Arkansas was eventually named Brough Commons – after Governor Brough – until student protest actions in the wake of the 2020 massacre of George Floyd and allegations of racial injustice at the University of Arkansas pressured UA administrators and trustees to remove Brough’s name from it in 2021.

Brough Commons is now called 1021 W. Dickson Street Food Court because University of Arkansas officials refused requests that the dining hall be renamed in memory of the Elaine 12.

Between Moore v. Dempsey and today, the criminal legal and punishment system has oppressed, terrorized, slaughtered and disenfranchised Black people, impoverished people, immigrants, women and girls, workers and LGBTQI persons.

The only difference between the August 1955 murder of Emmett Till and the Aug. 24, 2019, slaughter of Elijah McClain is that Emmett Till was murdered in Mississippi by white vigilantes while Elijah McClain was murdered by police officers in Aurora, Colorado.

Like the hundreds of Black men, women and children murdered in Elaine, Emmett Till and Elijah McClain were slaughtered. As with the Elaine martyrs, the people who killed Emmett Till and Elijah McClain were never punished.

Instead, Black people were told to “remain calm,” go about our business and trust the criminal legal and punishment system. To this day, the police officers who killed Elijah McClain have not been prosecuted.

When George Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin to death in Sanford, Florida, on Feb. 26, 2012, and was later acquitted in July 2013 of second-degree murder and manslaughter, we were told to remain calm, go about our business and trust the criminal legal and punishment system.

When Darren Wilson shot Michael Brown Jr. to death on Aug. 9, 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri, and was not charged with a crime, we were told to go about our business, remain calm, and trust the criminal legal and punishment system.

When Laquan McDonald was shot 16 times and killed by Jason Van Dyke, a Chicago, Illinois, police officer, on Oct. 20, 2014, we were told to go about our business, be calm and trust the criminal legal and punishment system.

We were told to be calm while politicians and police officials lied about how McDonald was killed, the same way politicians and law enforcement officials lied, tortured witnesses and behaved after the Elaine Massacre of 1919.

When Sandra Annette Bland was found hanged in her jail cell in Waller County, Texas, on July 13, 2015, – three days after her arrest during a traffic stop – her death was ruled a suicide. We were told to go about our business, remain calm and trust the criminal legal and punishment system.

When Alton Sterling was shot to death by two police officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on July 5, 2016, we were told to go about our business, be calm and trust the criminal legal and punishment system.

When Philando Castille was shot to death in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, on July 6, 2016, – the day after Alton Sterling was slain – we were told to go about our business, be calm and trust the criminal legal and punishment system.

When two Sacramento, California, police officers shot and killed Stephon Clark in his grandmother’s backyard on March 18, 2018, we were told to go about our business, be calm and trust the criminal legal and punishment system.

When Breonna Taylor was shot to death in her bed in Louisville, Kentucky, after at least seven Louisville police officers stormed into her apartment without warning on March 13, 2020, we were told to go about our business, remain calm and trust the criminal legal and punishment system that has refused to charge any of the police officers who killed her.

When George Floyd was choked to death in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on May 25, 2020, by a white police officer named Derek Chavin who was supported by three other Minneapolis Police officers, the public was first told that he had a medical incident while he was being taken into custody.

After a video filmed by a courageous Black teenage girl was posted online, went viral and prompted a public outcry, the prosecuting attorney of Hennepin County, Minnesota, stated during a May 28 joint press conference with the U.S. Attorney for Minnesota that “there is other evidence that does not support a criminal charge.” Both officials called for “patience” and urged the public to “trust the process.”

I mention those martyred Black people to make the following point.

It is time for morally sensitive people to say that the criminal legal and punishment system is infested with racism, sexism, wealth, privilege and fascism.

It is time for us to say that the American political and judicial system is infested with racism, sexism, wealth, privilege and fascism.

It is time for us to say that one word describes these systems: Unjust.

Editor’s note: This is the first of a two-part series. Part two is available here. The series is adapted from a keynote address Griffen delivered on Sept. 30, 2022, at the Elaine Museum and Richard Wright Civil Rights Center on the 103rd anniversary of the Elaine Massacre.

Share This