Isadore Banks was a World War I veteran and prosperous landowner from Marion, Arkansas. He was also black, so in June of 1954, a year before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in Montgomery, Alabama, somebody chained him to a tree, doused him in gasoline and set him on fire.
A pillar in the African-American community, Banks helped bring electricity to the town of Marion in the 1920s and became one of the wealthiest black landowners in a region with a long history of racial violence.
His killing had a profound effect. Many blacks left and never came back. For those who remained, the message was clear: If you were black and acquired wealth, you knew your place.
Blacks from all around would come to the killing site — to look at the oak sapling, to pray and to never forget. It seems most everyone in Crittenden County’s black community had a hunch who was responsible.
Nobody knows exactly why Banks was lynched. There are various theories: that people resented his wealth or his refusal to sell some of his property, that he was having an affair with a white woman, that he beat a white man who was dating his daughter.
Whatever the reason, Banks knew people were after him. He hid in a friend’s attic at one time, where a mob of white people came after him but couldn’t find him.
He disappeared on June 4th, 1954. The local black community offered a $1,000 reward for information leading to a conviction but nobody claimed it. Isadore Banks’ body was found on June 26th, burned beyond recognition, next to a canister of gasoline 50 yards from his truck. They identified him by his shoes.
Although there are still people alive who remember the murder and rumored suspects, Banks’ brutal lynching is one of the the oldest unsolved Civil Rights cases in the country. The FBI is still pursuing the investigation as part of its Civil Rights Cold Case Initiative, but unfortunately, the case file itself was destroyed in 1992 as required by the Records Retention and Disposition policy of the National Archives and Records Administration.
Now, 90 years after he served his country in World War I and 56 years after he was lynched, the U.S. Army has given Banks his long-delayed military honors. Banks’ granddaughter Marcelina Williams found his military records and worked with the Army to make it happen.