The visits began in the fall of 1918, just as World War I ended. At his office in Little Rock, Arkansas, attorney Ulysses S. Bratton listened as African American sharecroppers from the Delta told stories of theft, exploitation, and endless debt. A man named Carter had tended 90 acres of cotton, only to have his landlord seize the entire crop and his possessions. From the town of Ratio, in Phillips County, Arkansas, a black farmer reported that a plantation manager refused to give sharecroppers an itemized account for their crop. Another sharecropper told of a landlord trying “to starve the people into selling the cotton at his own price. They ain’t allowing us down there room to move our feet except to go to the field.”
No one could know it at the time, but within a year these inauspicious meetings would lead to one of the worst episodes of racial violence in U.S. history. Initiated by whites, the violence—by any measure, a massacre—claimed the lives of 237 African Americans, according to a just released report from the Equal Justice Initiative. The death toll was unusually high, but the use of racial violence to subjugate blacks during this time was not uncommon. As the Equal Justice Initiative observes, “Racial terror lynching was a tool used to enforce Jim Crow laws and racial segregation—a tactic for maintaining racial control by victimizing the entire African American community, not merely punishment of an alleged perpetrator for a crime.” This was certainly true of the massacre in Phillips County, Arkansas.
Bratton agreed to represent the cheated sharecroppers, who also joined a new union, the Progressive Farmers and Household Union of America. Its founder, a black Delta native named Robert Hill, had no prior organizing experience but plenty of ambition. “The union wants to know why it is that the laborers cannot control their just earnings which they work for,” Hill announced as he urged black sharecroppers to each recruit 25 prospective members to form a lodge. Hill was especially successful in Phillips County, where seven lodges were established in 1919.