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John Carter: Scapegoat for Anger

The following account of the lynching of John Carter was written for junior-high level audiences on America’s Black Holocaust Museum, an online museum whose mission is to educate the public about the ongoing injustices endured by people of African heritage in America, and to provide visitors to the site with opportunities to rethink their assumptions about race and racism. See this story about John Carter on ABHM here. Read about why I’m interested in this particular lynching in another essay written for ABHM that also appears here: Inheriting Home: The Skeletons in Pa’s Closet.


First Presbyterian Church

 

LITTLE ROCK, ARKANSAS — In April of 1927, an eleven-year-old girl was murdered. In May, an angry posse grabbed a man who didn’t do it and hung him from a telephone pole.

The Powder Keg

On April 12, 1927, a little white girl, Floella McDonald, disappeared on her way home from the library. For three weeks, family, friends, and officials searched for her. Finally, they found her body in the bell tower of First Presbyterian Church. Fifteen -year-old Lonnie Dixon, the son of the church’s black janitor, was arrested and charged with rape and murder. Many whites were angry and wanted to “get” Lonnie themselves. Several thousand people went to the jail and demanded that police turn him over. Instead, Chief Burl Rotenberry sent Lonnie to an out-of-town jail, to keep him safe.

 

The Spark

John Carter

On the morning of May 4, two white women – Mrs. B.E. Stewart, age forty-five, and her daughter Glennie, seventeen –were driving a wagon on a rural road, heading toward Little Rock. A black man approached them. Some accounts said the horses were out of control and the man grabbed the reins to help the women. Others

said he jumped in the wagon, demanded whiskey, and knocked them to the ground. A car stopped and took Mrs. Stewart and Glennie to the hospital. The man ran into the woods.

When the women’s family heard that a black man had jumped on their wagon, Sheriff Mike Haynie organized a posse. Hundreds of people came from Little Rock to help in the all-day search. After eight hours, two officers saw John Carter, a local black man. The previous

summer, he had gone to jail for attacking a white woman with a hammer. He had escaped from a work crew four days earlier, the same day searchers found Floella’s body. Some said Carter was mentally disabled.

The posse grabbed him and put him into a car. As more and more searchers joined the crowd, some said they wouldn’t let police protect him as they’d protected Lonnie Dixon. Glennie Stewart arrived and identified him as the man who had attacked her and her mother.

 

The Explosion

Mob members took Carter to a telephone pole and hit him with a revolver. They told him to confess, and then to pray. Before he finished, someone put a rope around his neck and told him to climb on top of a car. When he couldn’t, he was pushed up. Peace officers later said armed men threatened them when they tried to stop the lynching. Men holding the rope pulled John Carter up above the ground. Then someone drove the car out from under him and he swung in the air. A line of fifty men fired guns, striking Carter with more than two hundred bullets.

The crowd quickly grew to four hundred. The sheriff brought the coroner to write a report about John Carter’s death. Even though a photographer took a picture of the hanging body, with the crowd visible in the background, none of the mob members would admit they’d been there. The report said Carter had been killed “by parties unknown in a mob.”

Lynching of John Carter

The mob voted to take Carter’s body to Little Rock and burn it. When they got to the city, they tied him to the car’s bumper and dragged him through the city for an hour, down Main Street and past police headquarters. Finally, at about 7 p.m., the mob stopped at Ninth and Broadway, the center of the black business district. They poured gasoline and kerosene over Carter’s body. They piled on boxes, tree limbs, and pews from the nearby Bethel A.M.E. Church, and lit the fire. More white people hurried to the area. The crowd was shouting, firing guns into the air, cursing, yelling, and dancing. The active mob was about seven thousand, with thousands more men, women, and children watching.

Mayor Charles Moyer and Police Chief Rotenberry had left the city and no one knew where they were. Major J.A. Pitcock, chief of detectives, wanted to take fifty men and stop the rioting. But the assistant police chief said he couldn’t give that order without hearing from city council. City council wouldn’t act without the mayor.

Governor John Martineau was out of town, too. When he heard what was happening, he called out the National Guard. Seventy soldiers arrived at 10 p.m. with guns, bayonets, and tear gas bombs. When they told the remaining one or two thousand people to go home, they did. A fire truck doused the fire. An ambulance took Carter’s remains to City Hall and then to the undertaker.

People already had taken pieces of his body from the ashes, and they carred them around the city during the night.Soldiers reported seeing one person directing traffic with a charred arm torn from Carter’s burned body. The next day, a boy was fined the next day for selling photos of the lynching.

Lonnie Dixon

 

Epilogue

No one was ever charged or prosecuted for lynching John Carter. A jury deliberated for only twelve minutes before convicting Lonnie Dixon of killing Floella McDonald. He was executed in the electric chair on June 24, 1927, his sixteenth birthday.



This account is compiled from April-June 1927 articles in The Arkansas Democrat, Arkansas Gazette, and The Chicago Defender, and from Marcet Haldeman-Julius, The Story of a Lynching: A Exploration of Southern Psychology. Little Blue Book No. 1260. E. Haldeman-Julius, ed. (Girard, KS: Haldeman-Julius Company, 1927).

For me, studying and writing about this lynching is more than academic. Read why in Inheriting Home: The Skeletons in Pa’s Closet.

 

© 2012 Stephanie Harp. All rights reserved.