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On the Laps of Gods: The Red Summer of 1919 and the Struggle for Justice That Remade a Nation Paperback – June 23, 2009

4.7 out of 5 stars 18 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

On September 30, 1919, a group of white planters tried to shut down a black sharecroppers' meeting in Arkansas; a sheriff was killed in the melee, and the next day hordes of whites traveled to the county. Thus began the Elaine Massacre, the indiscriminate hunting down, shooting and killing of Negroes, as one white witness described it. Whitaker (The Mapmaker's Wife) reconstructs the killing fields where by October 3, five white men and over 100 black men, women and children were killed. Hundreds of black sharecroppers were arrested; after torture-obtained confessions, 74 men were convicted and 12 received the death penalty. Whitaker examines the trial, the ensuing appeals and the heroic—ultimately successful—efforts of the lawyer and former slave, Scipio Africanus Jones and the 12 defendants who were finally set free in 1925. His research is thorough, particularly in his use of Arkansas resources; the arrangement of his documentation, however, makes tracking his sources a put-the-jigsaw-together exercise for the reader. Whitaker's balanced report of what are, at times, diametrically opposed versions of events illuminates a dismal corner of American history. (June)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.


"One of the fifty best nonfiction books of 2008."
San Francisco Chronicle

"Whitaker has . . . placed the massacre and the Supreme Court decision in their full legal and historical context. At the same time, he has revived the story of a great African American
lawyer, Scipio Africanus Jones."
New York Times Book Review

"Robert Whitaker unearths a dark historical event in a creative and powerful way.  Don't miss this book!" 
–Cornel West, author of Race Matters

“State-sponsored terrorism is not a new phenomenon in American history; for nearly a century, it was part of the daily lot of African Americans living in the Jim Crow South. Nowhere was that reality more brutally revealed than in Phillips County, Arkansas, where in 1919 a white mob, deputized by state authorities and assisted by units of the U.S. Army, slaughtered some two hundred men, women, and children – sharecroppers whose sole offense was organizing to obtain a fair price for the cotton they grew. Robert Whitaker has reconstructed this long-forgotten episode in riveting detail. His book plumbs the depths of hatred and injustice, yet it is also a story of hope, embodied in the unlikely figure of attorney Scipio Africanus Jones, a former slave, whose dogged defense of survivors of the massacre prevented a legal lynching and changed the face of American jurisprudence.
—James T. Campbell, author of Middle Passages: African American Journeys to Africa, 1787-2005, finalist for the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in History and winner of the Mark Lynton History Prize

“At the heart of this masterful narrative is Scipio Jones, a man born a slave, who became one of this country's greatest lawyers. During the awful period of racial ethnic cleansing that convulsed our country for so long, Jones turned an American tragedy into an American triumph. Bob Whitaker gives an account of a footnote of our history that is at the heart of what we aim at our best, to be as a nation. On these pages, there is an admirable and confident understanding of the ultimate scale of these events. Whitaker casts an unstinting eye back at America's brutal racial past and the power of individuals, black and white to shape individual and national destiny.”
—Marita Golden, author of Don't Play in the Sun: One Woman's Journey Through the Color Complex

“Like the classic Gideon's Trumpet, On theLaps of Gods tells the dramatic story of how extraordinary citizens fought for a basic right–in this case to a fair and proper trial–that became fundamental to our national identity. This tale alone, and Whitaker's portrayal of attorney Scipio Africanus Jones, would have made for a great book, but he gives us much more as he brings alive the tragic and oft-forgotten details of racial violence in the American heartland and reveals a history that can make us weep and also cheer.  Startling, artful, and filled with truth, this is an important and compelling book.”
—Michael D'Antonio, author of The State Boys Rebellion and Hershey

From the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Broadway Books; Reprint edition (June 23, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307339831
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307339836
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.8 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (18 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #809,702 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Robert Whitaker is the author of four books: Mad in America, The Mapmaker's Wife, On the Laps of Gods and Anatomy of an Epidemic. His newspaper and magazine articles on the mentally ill and the pharmaceutical industry have garnered several national awards, including a George Polk Award for medical writing and a National Association of Science Writers Award for best magazine article. A series he cowrote for the Boston Globe on the abuse of mental patients in research settings was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 1998.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
On the Laps of Gods by Robert Whitaker: This is a MUST READ book by a jornalist formerly with the Wall Street Journal. It focuses on an attempt by tenant farmers in Southeastern Arkansas to organize and collectively confront the land owners with theft of profits due the tem. Land owners learned of the cooperative meeting and ambushed them in their local church, beginning a trail of killing that eventually took the lives of 100 black tenant farmers and their families. They were assisted by Federal Troops from a local barracks who used machine guns on the tenant farmers. Whitaker pictures this confrontation in the larger picture of consistent and planned disenfrantisement of the black in all of the the states of the Confederate south by agreement with the local law officers and the local court systems as they passed law after law diminishing the rights of blacks. The Supreme Court USA of the time looked the other way arguing states rights dispite abuse of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution.

Whitaker paints a lesson for us all. In a day when the US government easily condemns lack of freedom for citizens of other countries, we must look back on our own recent past. It is an agonizing moral dilemma and should tax our own moral code. The hero here is Scipio Africanus Jones, born a slave who rose to practice law and free the 87 Arkansas prisoners falsely accused of murder by collusion of the courts and the law and who faced either long prison sentences or execution. WHAT A STORY.
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Format: Hardcover
The very title of the book suggests that a great deal of help was needed in overcoming one of the most shameful events in the annals of America's very dark racial history. The events in question have to do with Robert Whitaker's award winning story about what happened to a group of black sharecroppers in the Mississippi Delta, in Elaine, Arkansas, just up the street from Helena, about a 4 hours drive from my own hometown of Pine Bluff, Arkansas.

What happened on the night of September 30, 1919 has been seared into the collective memory of all blacks affiliated with the Helena area. On that night, a group of Black sharecroppers, who had gotten tired of years of being cheated out of their fair share of their cotton crops, decided to take matters into their own hands by forming a union with the intention of petitioning and eventually suing their landowners to redress this long-running economic inequity and injustice.

This injustice, incidentally was common practice used against black farmers, whether sharecroppers or not, and existed all over not just Arkansas, but all over the South. As a small boy, I can distinctly remember my grandfather, Silas Brown, who was not a sharecropper, but happened to own his own proverbial "forty acres and two mules (Blue and Cake)," bitterly complaining about how he too was being cheated out of his cotton crop by the unscrupulous "buyers and ginners of cotton.
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Format: Hardcover
It's great to see that this incident has finally merited its own book. I had heard it in a number of different books, but those only whetted my appetite for more.

It's quite an interesting story. First, imagine some illiterate, dirt-poor, African-American sharecroppers in the heart of the Delta in the early part of the 20th century trying to organize a union. This then becomes a pretext for - there's no getting around - an out-and-out massacre. This massacre includes bands of Whites from over an extended area hunting African-Americans down like deer. Next, pull in the state militia and have them machine gun the hiding places where the African-Americans have fled. Finally, round up over 100 African-Americans and try them for murder. While you're at it, though, make sure you torture them with beatings, electric shocks, and drugs so they will be sure to perjure themselves.

Yup, it all actually happened, right here in these United States. Depressing as this all sounds, the book is actually quite uplifting. The hero of the story is a local lawyer, born a slave, who takes on the case and never gives up - taking it all the way to the Supreme Court, where it's actually reversed and becomes a milestone in combating states rights and making the 14th Amendment actually work.

Never heard of it? That's not too surprising. African-American history, especially what happened between the Civil War and the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s, is hidden history.

I've actually read a ton of these books. This one seems particularly good to me. First, it's the only one I know that treats this particular (very important and very interesting) incident. Just as important, though, it is very well written.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This book is heartrending but also uplifting. It brings into focus a national hero, Scipio Jones, who was born a slave but rose to prominence. Now forgotten, he brought about--through his deft legal work--changes in our national law that we would do well to remember now in these days when habeous corpus seems to have gone by the wayside. Truly this book can be seen as examining the changes in our law that made it possible for the civil rights movement to emerge. It really is a great book and a great read. It can be hard to get through some of the gripping--but painful--accounts of the killings in the beginning of the book--but the end is worth it.
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