1903

By 1903 the criminal justice system had long been an enemy of the black community, so why in that year did John Mitchell voice his anger now more than ever before, encouraging black man to “slay his slayer” instead of rising above and responding to hate with peace?

John Mitchell’s frustrated tone throughout the Planet’s publications of 1903 grew out of decisions made at Virginia’s unconstitutional “Constitutional” Convention of 1902, which restricted black advancement in the South. Mitchell insisted that African Americans in Richmond in 1903 were facing a time “more bitter than ever was known in the history of the country.” Mitchell argued, as a last resort, that black people should arm themselves to combat the systematic racism ever-present in Richmond. Due to the events that recently took place in Virginia, the articles often address the disfranchisement of African Americans.

Because John Mitchell stood as a key influential member and leader of the black community, his opinions, particularly his frustrations, were echoed throughout the Richmond community, shaping the views of many black readers. By comparing the convictions of whites and blacks, making blatant inconsistencies known, Mitchell’s publications likely swayed readers to join in his frustration. The Planet often praised individuals who fought back against white lynch mobs and officers, encouraging others to do the same.  

Although the “unconstitutional ‘Constitutional’ convention” concluded in June of 1902, it remained an ever-present topic throughout 1903. The convention “disfranchised the colored citizen” despite the fact that individuals “long proclaimed that the era of good feeling had arrived and that honest elections were here to stay.” In the article “Trouble in Henrico,” the Planet calls out nearby Henrico County as being “the worst so far as political recognition of the colored brother is concerned.” This Virginia county served as one of Mitchell’s numerous examples of how the black community was “steadily robbed… of every political right and denied him considerations that the most no-count white citizen would be accorded.”

Another article based upon the rulings of the convention told the story of a white mob “armed with shotguns” who “went to the office of the county treasurer and drove away the colored men who were there to pay the poll taxes as a prerequisite to voting.” Mitchell argued that even when going about “a peaceful mission, complying with the specific provisions of a law… enacted by an all-white Virginia legislature,” black men confronted roadblocks. The Planet confronted anyone in opposition to black advancement because the peaceful approach which had been taken it the past proved ineffective. Mitchell complained that “colored people are more like sheep than they are like lions and that this to a great extent accounted for their increasing slaughter”.

The criminal justice system’s inconsistency attracted Mitchell’s attention. He told the story of Mattie Joseph, a white woman, shot by a white man with a revolver and who, in a different instance, “was struck with a stone by a colored youth.”  Although it is clear which crime is more severe, the young African American boy was given a “ten-year sentence in the penitentiary for the offense” while the “white man,” who was known by the authorities, had “not even been arrested.”

John Mitchell purposefully crafted the layout and placement of the articles in order for the stories being told to read even more effective than they would have standing alone. He focused on the conviction of “Edward Frank and Will McRee,” white men, who pled “guilty to thirteen indictments for peonage or holding colored people in slavery.”  The men “were sentenced to pay a fine of $1000 on two of the indictments and the others were dismissed”. Mitchell juxtaposed this shocking abridgement of justice to a nearby article telling of another “Three Black Men Lynched.

John Mitchell praises individuals who “refuse to surrender” when confronted by lynch mobs and law enforcement instead of discouraging this behavior. He tells the story of a black man named Doc. Smith who shot and instantaneously killed a police officer as he was being arrested. After explaining the incident Mitchell writes;

“What else was Doc. Smith to do? To surrender was to die. He could not secure a fair trial even if he were to reach that stage of the proceedings. To have surrendered to the sheriff was to be lynched… He should fight as long as strength remains and then wither end his own life or have them end it for him by the bullet route.”

Mitchell’s support for resistance argued that when black people display this “kind of courage, a change will ensue and a genuine respect for the Negro will take the place of contemptible loathing.”

Another article, “Fought to the Death”, praised a black man who “carried his slayer with him.” In a gambling game gone wrong, “a white man and a Negro lost their lives.” When a dispute arose the black man had the “right kind of ‘horse sense’” and was able to kill his assailant. The Planet, claimed that actions like this “must animate the breast of the colored man in the Southland” because it “will tend to bring respect to even those colored men who survive him.” Mitchell declared that “cowardice has never won respect. It invites contempt.”

John Mitchell chose to focus primarily on the issues of disfranchisement and the unjust criminal justice system in order to provoke a reaction from the black community in Richmond. Although they had long been misrepresented and mistreated, the decisions made at the convention in 1902 were particularly harsh and seen as a large step backwards for black rights. The peaceful behavior that black men and women had long been encouraged to maintain appeared to not be effective. As a bitter response, the Planet encouraged a new way to cope with the white dominance.

Rose Williams