On June 4, 1954, Isadore Banks, a wealthy Black landowner and WWI veteran in Arkansas left home to get money from the bank to pay some farm workers. He never returned. About four days later, his body was found chained to a tree, mutilated and burned beyond recognition. An empty gasoline container and a set of keys were found next to his body.
His truck was also found nearby with its battery dead but ignition turned on. A local farmer told authorities that he found Banks’ remains while searching a wooded area he knew Banks often went to. Banks’ murder became one of Arkansas’s most notorious cold cases of the civil rights era. It also came at a time of frequent lynchings in various states including Alabama and South Carolina.
Banks himself was born amid heightened racism in Arkansas. In 1895 when he was born, Black people in Arkansas were experiencing racial violence, being barred from the political process, and essentially not being treated as equals. Banks would grow up to become a prominent Black person in Crittenden County, Arkansas despite being denied the rights and privileges given to his White peers in a segregated South.
Described as a giant (6-foot-1 and nearly 300 pounds), Banks initially joined the Army and fought in World War I when he was 22. After the war, Banks returned home to Arkansas and worked at a utility company laying lines and support poles which brought electricity to his hometown of Marion, Crittenden County, and surrounding areas.
In the midst of racial violence, Banks, who became a Freemason, started buying land. He farmed cotton and started a trucking company. He would come to own as many as 1,000 acres in Crittenden County. At the same time, Banks gave back to his community as he founded a cotton gin business in the 1940s to support other Black farmers while donating books and other materials to local schools.
By 1954, there were reports that his life was in danger as some people were after him. Rumors spread about why. Some said Banks had refused to sell land to White men or had beaten up a White man who had courted his oldest daughter. Others said Banks was having an affair with a White woman who rented her land to him, and Whites were against that. Banks at some point had to flee to the home of a friend, John Gammon Jr., who was the leader of the Negro Division of the Arkansas Farm Bureau Federation. Banks hid in Gammon’s attic. A mob of Whites came to look for him but didn’t find him.
On June 4, 1954, when he left home only to be found dead some days later, the Chicago Defender wrote: “Rumors here state that Banks may have been killed by whites who were anxious to get hold of his property. Another theory says that Banks had been involved with several girls, and had incurred the anger of a white man who was interested in one of them.”
No matter the reason, officials said that it was likely that more than one person committed the murder as the 300-pound body of Banks would have been difficult to move. His murder sparked fear in Crittenden County’s Black community. Many Blacks even left. An NAACP lawyer, who was not satisfied with the way local law enforcement was handling the investigation, contacted the FBI. However, the FBI wrote at the time that it was not thinking about an investigation because “it did not appear that there was a violation of the Federal Statute over which this Bureau had jurisdiction,” PBS reported.
A reward of $1,000 was offered by local Black businessmen for information leading to an arrest but no one came forward to say anything. Many Blacks feared that they could suffer a cruel fate if they said anything. In an interview in 2010, Julian Fogleman, who was the Marion city attorney when Banks died, said there was “scant local investigation” because no one ever came forward with any information.
In 2007, the FBI opened an investigation into Banks’ death and tried to get results from the local investigation but got to know that the files had been lost in a flood in the 1970s. The original FBI file had also been destroyed in 1992 in line with federal records-keeping policy, officials said. But the FBI interviewed law enforcement officers and relatives of Banks. It found that those who could have had information about the crime had died. After five years, the investigation closed in 2012.
“Despite extensive efforts, no subjects have been identified. Because of the destruction of the FBI and local investigative files, the lack of any known living witnesses, the various unsubstantiated theories of motive, including insufficient evidence that the victim’s death was in fact racially motivated, there is no reasonable possibility that further investigation will lead to a prosecutable case,” the Department of Justice wrote in a memo closing the file, according to PBS.
In 2010, Banks was given military honors recognizing his service in World War I. His family at the time said they will not rest until Banks got justice.