Scipio Jones – a Hero to Meet for Our Time

race-against-timeLynn:  I have a new hero and it saddens me to say that this extraordinary person, Scipio Jones, was unknown to me before reading Sandra Neil and Rich Wallace’s latest book, Race Against Time: The Untold Story of Scipio Jones and the Battle to Save Twelve Innocent Men (Boyds Mills/Calkins Creek, 2021). Scipio Jones was a singularly courageous and inspiring man whose name should be known to every American and I hope this outstanding book helps make that a fact.

Race Against Time is a story of Scipio Jones but it is also about another buried but important event—the Elaine Massacre—and the twelve men wrongfully condemned to execution. The time was 1919. In Elaine, Arkansas, returning Black soldiers came home to find that oppression, discrimination, and fear were still the prevailing conditions. Sharecroppers, they struggled with unfair prices for their cotton and a system that looked the other way at not just inequality but at blatant terrorizing of the Black community. After risking their lives to fight for their country, many of these Black veterans refused to accept the situation and in Elaine, a union was organized to fight for fair prices. While meeting one night in a local church, carloads of white vigilantes attacked, shooting and killing more than 200 men, women, and children. During the melee, 5 white men were killed, some by their own bullets in the confusion. Almost immediately, 12 Black men were arrested for murder, tried, and convicted.

Enter Scipio Jones, who risked his life, spent five years of intensive work, and expending most of his personal wealth, desperately striving to save the twelve. Eventually the case made it to the Supreme Court and became the first time African Americans won a Supreme Court decision. As always, the Wallaces write with admirable clarity, making this complex legal story understandable for a teen audience. This is also a heart-stopping story of suspense. Fascinating and deeply relevant in our time, this is a story that should be read and remembered.

Cindy: Like Lynn, and the Wallaces before they unearthed the story while researching a later court case, I’d never heard of this courageous and brilliant lawyer or the story of this important legal battle to not only save lives, but to move justice forward for persecuted African Americans. We still have a long way to go for legal justice for all, but Scipio Jones certainly provided a push in that progress, and at great personal sacrifice and risk to his own safety.

I also don’t know as much as I should about the history of the NAACP, so it was surprising to me how little faith the leadership had in having a black lawyer represent the case that he had worked so hard to prepare. In some states, especially in the segregated south, it was also a legal mandate for a white lawyer to present the cases. Of course, in 1919, Scipio Jones couldn’t even ride in the same train car as his white colleague or sleep in the same hotel. For his own safety, after a long day in court he had to find a local family willing to host him for the night, changing his location daily for his protection, and that of the people willing to help him.

This horrifying and fascinating story also includes famed Ida B. Wells-Barnett, who visited the incarcerated men and wrote about them, and held a protest to raise funds for their defense. Jones also had a young attorney working with him on a final case against the Little Rock school district, who he was suing for equal pay for Black teachers and administrators. Scipio died before the case was finished but that young attorney, Thurgood Marshall, continued on and won the case.

Scipio Jones, born enslaved and self-taught, and his heroic and brilliant work need to be known, and honored. Start by reading this powerful book.

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