That includes an incident at the New York Times last week. After some initial protests to the George Floyd killing, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) tweeted a call to use federal force to quell so-called riots. Those tweets soon developed into an opinion piece published in the New York Times, in which he argued President Trump should unilaterally call in federal troops in “an overwhelming show of force to disperse, detain and ultimately deter lawbreakers.”
A portion of the Times staff, outraged at that publication, argued that it put the lives of black staff and reporters in danger; a wider public uproar pushed editorial page editor James Bennett to resign.
This episode joins a long history of predominantly white U.S. newsrooms behaving clumsily at best in periods of racial upheaval.
In my book, “Civil Rights and the Making of the Modern American State,” I examine a race massacre that took place in Arkansas in 1919. One of the unexpected findings from my archival research is the role of the white press in fanning the flames of racial violence.
Here’s the story of another inflammatory New York Times incident a century ago
On Oct. 6, 1919, the Times’s front page included this headline: “Planned Massacre of Whites Today: Negroes Seized in Arkansas Riots Confess to Widespread Plot Among Them.” Numerous newspapers picked up the story, which contributed to nationwide hysteria and condemnation for so-called black rioters in Arkansas.
Except the story was false — a ginned-up attempt by Arkansas’ white political establishment to cover up the largest mass lynching of African Americans in United States history. On Sept. 30, 1919, in Phillips County, Ark., white residents joined with federal troops to kill at least 237 African Americans.
The vast majority of Americans have never heard of this gruesome massacre. Here’s what actually happened.
1919: Black lives massacred
On Sept. 30, a group of African American sharecroppers gathered in a church to organize a union that would work for fair pay and better working conditions. White landowners found out about the gathering. A small group of angry white men arrived and fired shots into the church, first shattering the ceiling lights and then aiming at the frightened men, women, and children trapped in the darkened building. A small group of African Americans fired back in self-defense. Amid the disorder, one white man was killed.
Prominent whites in Phillips County mobilized a mob. Vigilante militias like the Ku Klux Klan were called upon. Arkansas Gov. Charles Brough demanded federal troops, and neighboring states sent white men to help “quell the riot.” The response was tremendous: More than 1,000 white vigilantes, along with 538 troops from the 57th Infantry, rushed to Phillips County to terrorize African Americans.
Next came the worst racial violence until then in the 20th century: 237 African American men, women, and children were hunted, shot and killed over three days, with many more wounded. Thousands fled to the woods for shelter as their homes and businesses were looted and set on fire.
When the angry white mobs left on Oct. 2, 1919, the white establishment delivered a master class in how to get away with racial violence. To stave off pesky Northern judgment, a group of seven prominent white men (including a sheriff, a mayor, and the county judge) launched an elaborate coverup, issuing a fabricated statement to the press “Inward Facts About Negro Insurrection.” That news release relied on racial stereotypes about black dangerousness and concluded, “The present trouble with Negroes in Phillips County is not a race riot. It is a deliberately planned insurrection of the Negroes against the whites.”
This white establishment pasted fliers all around town declaring, “No innocent negro has been arrested” and warning the remaining black residents to “Stop Talking! Stay at home — Go to work — Don’t worry!”
The Arkansas white establishment spreads a fake news story — and the national white press picks it up
Next, the establishment planted a fake news story to frame the narrative. The leading newspaper in Arkansas, the Arkansas Gazette, reported Phillips County had become “a zone of negro insurrection.” National media outlets elevated this “reporting” to a wider audience. The New York Times front page headline read “Planned Massacre of Whites Today” and the Los Angeles Times declared on its front page “Whites Battle with Negro Gangs.”
Emboldened by this false reporting, law enforcement and white vigilantes arrested and brutally beat more than 100 African American men in an attempt to force them to take responsibility for the violence. Overall, 122 African Americans were indicted by the grand jury, and 79 were charged with crimes ranging from making threats to murder. Of those, 12 African American men were sentenced to death by the electric chair.
In a remarkable turn of events, the black press, led by Ida B. Wells and Walter F. White, who was a journalist before becoming executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, were able to shift the narrative. In a legal battle that took more than three years, the NAACP secured the acquittal of the 12 men, backed by a multiyear campaign in the black press to force a reckoning with the facts.
This mass lynching of African Americans and its violent aftermath reveal what can happen when the political establishment, law enforcement, and the media collude on behalf of white supremacy.
In their best moments, newspapers and the news media can democratize information and amplify important public discussions, expanding everyone’s welfare. In their worst, they can spread falsehoods, encourage violence, and do great harm. Reckoning honestly with history can help these institutions choose the better path.
Megan Ming Francis (@meganfrancis) is a visiting associate professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School, an associate professor at the University of Washington, and author of Civil Rights and the Making of the Modern American State (Cambridge University Press, 2014).