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There Is a Deep Brooding in Arkansas

There Is a Deep Brooding in Arkansas: The Rape Trials that Sustained Jim Crow—and the People who Fought It, from Thurgood Marshall to Maya Angelou (forthcoming from Yale University Press, 2024).


In the early years of the twentieth century, Mississippi County, Arkansas, was one of the most brutal, unequal, and profitable places in the United States. Home to thousands of starving, landless farmers, a powerful Ku Klux Klan, a burgeoning union of socialist sharecroppers, and the largest plantations in the country, the county produced almost two percent of the entire world’s cotton. And, just as the nation descended into the Great Depression, Mississippi County was home to two trials that made headlines across the country—and starkly illustrated the profound injustices of the Jim Crow legal system. Two pairs of men were charged with rape—one pair white, the other pair Black. With startling efficiency, both pairs were sentenced to death in the same Mississippi County courthouse. Yet there the similarities stopped. The white men, almost certainly guilty, were quickly granted a series of reprieves; the Black men, almost certainly innocent, suffered on death row as their lawyers—eventually led by a young attorney named Thurgood Marshall—sought mercy from the U.S. Supreme Court. The very different fates ultimately faced by these men serve as a microcosm to illustrate the ferociously unjust justice system in this time and place.


There Is a Deep Brooding in Arkansas zooms out to situate these trials in all of their context and complexity, revealing the numerous forces that gave rise to unique vulnerabilities and forms of violence. The narrative draws on previously untapped archival documents to depict social struggles in rich detail, mapping the intimate connections between racism, sexism, capitalism, and the legal system in the Jim Crow south. By weaving the story of the two trials together with seemingly disparate narrative threads—including the NAACP’s voluminous rape docket, the rise and fall of labor organizing in the Arkansas Delta, and the incredible anti-rape activism of a young Arkansan, Maya Angelou—There Is a Deep Brooding in Arkansas provides a layered tapestry of injustice at the heart of the American legal order. At a time when activists are battling rape culture in the courts, demanding an end to the casual acceptance of sexual harassment and grotesque power imbalances, and proudly proclaiming that Black lives do matter, There Is a Deep Brooding in Arkansas provides a powerful, timely, and crucial history.

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