Paris and the cruel grip of history

Richard Abshire of the Dallas Morning News offers a timely update to the racially-tinged death of Brandon McClelland in Paris, Texas.  A companion piece chronicles the Northeast Texas community’s historical association with lynching.

This is the second time Paris officials have been accused of racial bias in recent history.  Last year, Shaquanda Cotton was sentenced to a Texas Youth Commission holding facility for pushing a teacher’s aid.

Neither Shaquanda Cotton’s mother nor the mother of Brandon McClelland want to see the men responsible for this latest outrage put to death–both women are staunch opponents of the death penalty–but they want to see justice served.

It has been argued that the white men accused of killing McClelland couldn’t have committed a hate crime because they were good friends with their black victim. 

Friends don’t drag friends to death. 

That said, it is difficult to establish the motivation of any crime.  Brandon McClelland paid the ultimate price for associating with violent individuals who were strangers to natural human affection.  We need to know far more about the victim’s relationship to his murderers.  According to Abshire:

The men were thought to be friends. Mr. McClelland was convicted of perjury for lying on Mr. Finley’s behalf in a manslaughter case. Mr. Finley went to prison from 2004 to 2007 for shooting a friend in a Paris park; Mr. McClelland was sentenced to a two-year term.

 Did McLelland perjure himself to help out a buddy, because he was threatened with dire consequences if he told the truth, or are we dealing with a complicated mix of both factors?  Is McLelland of normal intelligence, or were his white associates taking advantage of a man with a serious learning disability?  More light needs to be shed on these questions.

Is it fair to bring up the close historical association between Paris and lynching? 

It isn’t just fair; it is critically important.

Heinous crimes perpetrated by an entire community leave a psychic stain (ala Lady McBeth) that will not wash away.  You don’t torture a man to death and then wander casually back to business as usual.  Churches complicit in this kind of demonic rage remain crippled and scarred until confession is made and forgiveness is extended. 

Across America, especially in the southern states, individuals, families, and congregations shoulder crushing emotional and spiritual burdens, often without realizing it.  You see the consequences most clearly in the criminal justice system and in strained and tenuous relations between black and white communities. 

I congratulate Mr. Abshire for noting that a monument to the Confederacy stands on the courthouse steps in Paris.  I have noted the same phenomenon on the grounds of the state capitols in Little Rock, Arkansas and, last week, in Atlanta, Georgia. 

The most soul-destroying example of this form of spiritual oppression can be found in Colfax, Louisiana. 


In the cemetery across the street from a Baptist church you will find this obelisk celebrating the sacrifice of three brave souls who gave their lives fighting for “white supremacy” in 1873.  The marker was unveiled at a well-attended ceremony in 1921.  

Down the street at the courthouse stands a sign celebrating the “Colfax race riot” that broke the back of “Carpetbag misrule.”

Since I first stumbled upon these historical artifacts I have read two recent and carefully researched books on the Colfax Massacre.  The real facts do not reflect well on the tiny community. 

During the Reconstruction period, Grant Parish was carved out of central Louisiana as a protected space for Republicans (most of them black).  After a disputed election, 300 Democrats marched on a Colfax courthouse defended by 150 poorly armed black residents.  The brave champions of white supremacy set fire to the courthouse, then mowed down the Republican defenders as they fled.  Several dozen people taken captive during the “battle” were summarily executed later that night.

When a heroic US Attorney named J.R. Beckwith tried to bring a representative handfful of the murderers to justice, his efforts were blocked by a Supreme Court weary of Reconstruction.  In that sense, the marker in front of the Colfax courthouse is on target: the Colfax massacre did sound the death knell of Reconstruction politics in the South.  Hence the name of Charles Lanes’ book, “The Day Freedom Died“.

How are the people who worship across the street from a marker valorizing racial hatred affected?  How can black residents of Grant Parish expect to obtain justice from a courthouse that celebrates the mass murder of African Americans?

How can communities like Jasper, Tulia, Jena, Little Rock and Paris come to terms with the horrors of history?  In the natural flow of events it rarely happens. 

The only fitting response to the death of Brandon McClelland would be a formal, organized, community-wide process of remembering, confession and restoration.  Only then will the tragic stories stop flowing from the press.  Demons must be exorcised.

8 thoughts on “Paris and the cruel grip of history

  1. “Did McLelland perjure himself to help out a buddy, because he was threatened with dire consequences if he told the truth”

    If he was threatened, why did he continue to go out drinking and partying after they all got out of prison with a guy who had threatened him? That explanation doesn’t seem very credible to me. Friends kill each other all the time, as do lovers, business partners, etc… Nobody can make you more angry than someone you’re close to.

    Similarly, I wonder on what basis you say “Paris officials have been accused of racial bias” in this case? The KILLERS were alleged to have bias by activists who’ve offered no specific basis for the claim, but what have “officials” done?

    There are old monuments to the Confederacy all over the south, does that mean every time a black person is killed by a white person it was done in the name of white supremacy? Is failing to tear down a monument constructed before they were born the only “racially tinged” sin of Lamar County officials in this case? If so, that’s a de minimus level of culpability.

    Finally, your last piece on this quoted Howard Witt saying one of the defendants’ had white supremacist ties, which Abshire reported turned out to be an inaccurate rumor. You praised Abshire for mentioning the Confederate monument, but doesn’t that retraction at least merit a mention?

    I think you’re jumping to a lot of conclusions on this one, Alan, to link this case to Jasper, Jena and Tulia given what we know right now. No offense – maybe it’ll turn out that way, but so far I don’t think the “hate crime” interpretation is very credible.

  2. Scott:
    I doubt “hate crime” legislation is very helpful in many cases. As I say, establishing motivation is rarely easy. I also agree that friends kill each other all the time, but they rarely do it in such a nasty way. When you run somebody down and drag them for forty feet there is a pretty high degree of animus (or mere sadism) involved. You might call these guys associates, but not friends.

    I said that public officials are being accused of racial bias because they are. Witt’s article suggests that local law enforcement was working hard to minimize any racial element in this case. Saying it isn’t a hate crime is one thing; saying race played no role in the dynamics of the case is something quite different.

    Howard Witt quoted a local man who claims that the defendants had ties to white supremicist organizations; Abshire quotes prison officials who say they weren’t aware of any such association. This isn’t a clear contradiction since it is the sources that conflict. Only a trial could shed light on the issue and I hope it does. The other questions I raise are sparked by similar cases in which the mentally retarded have been manipulated for the amusement of “friends”. I’m not saying that is the case here, but it is a possibility that should be investigated and ruled out.

    As you say, there are indeed monuments to the Confederacy all over the South and I am not suggesting that they should be torn down. They are a part of history that needs to be confronted and dealt with. Few southern communities have actively repudiated their support for slavery and Jim Crow–there has been no clean break–and that is a big problem. In towns like Tulia and Jena, there is a history of oppression that directly impacts the present. For instance, the DA who preceded Reed Walters in LaSalle Parish (Jena) used to have the Klan march at his political rallies. I suspect that Walters was present at many of these functions. That kind of validation sticks with a person. It shapes who you are and, in the case of a prosecutor, it influences decision making.

    Similarly, churches that espoused the virtues of slavery and Jim Crow (depending on the era) will search their Bibles for proof texts justifying these institutions. The impact on popular piety is enormous, and it doesn’t end when the local school is integrated.

    So, I am not saying that the fact issues in Jena, Tulia, Jasper and Paris are identical, or even similar. I am saying that all these towns must confront the demons of history if they are serious about the religion of Jesus or the principle of equal justice.

    Does that help? Let me say again how much I admire the wonderful blogging you do at Grit for Breakfast. Highly recommended.

  3. I just think it doesn’t help either the interests of victims or justice to jump to that conclusion first when the story is obviously a lot more complicated than that. It’s particularly unhelpful to concoct improbable scenarios (like the idea that the victim was threatened to perjure himself then went drinking with the killer afterward) in a transparent attempt to cling to a simplistic theory that racism is at root of it all.

    I appreciate your work too, Alan, and appreciate the compliment. But with respect, I think you’re doing more here than just raising the question of race in this story. You’re demanding in your final paragraph a “community-wide … confession” for slavery and Jim Crow, but it’s not at all clear the “community” has anything to confess. Cain killed Abel long before the first slave ship sailed to Africa.

  4. Scott:

    I’m not concocting improbably scenarios, just trying to make sense of the story. There was obviously something sick about this relationship and I think prosecutors need to ask some probing questions as they prepare their case. A community with lynching in its past needs to say “no” to that heritage. If they don’t, vestiges of old Jim Crow assumptions will continue, passed unwittingly from parent to child. There needs to be a clean break with the racist past before a community can pull together and transcend the brokenness of the past. A community is like a dysfunctional family writ large. The secrets must be faced.

    Once Scott and I get our disagreement clarified I would like to see a few other readers jump in. This is an issue of critical importance.

  5. I am not suprised that such a memorial exists in Paris, Texas and most likely there are others in small towns scattered thoughout the south. To top it off, Sarah Palin goes around the country saying to people in these small towns, (which are predominently white) that she campaigns in areas that are Pro America and that Obama not one of us and he associates with terrorists. How can she say she is a Christian when she spreads fear and hatred in the name of winning an election. She and McCain have very little to offer this country except seeds of hatred. There has already been 2 plots to assasinate Obama and no one is calling her or McCain to the carpet. They will most likely loose the election because I believe that there is an intelligent majority in this country but it is so mind boggling that this election is so close. I don’t mean to sound bitter but seeing so much injustice makes me feel that way.

  6. I direct you to:, a Washington Post poll.

    “Obama is outperforming any Democrat back to Jimmy Carter among white voters, getting 45 percent to McCain’s 52 percent. But in the South, it is a very different story. Obama fares worse among Southern whites than any Democrat since George McGovern in 1972.

    Whites in the East and West tilt narrowly toward Obama (he’s up 8 and 7 points, respectively), and the two run about evenly among those in the Midwest. By contrast, Southern whites break more than 2 to 1 for McCain, 65 percent to 32 percent.

    That stark divide is not simply a partisan difference. While white Democrats outside the South give Obama margins of 80 points or more, he leads by a more modest 65 points among white Southern Democrats. The Democrat is up 55 points among liberal whites in the region, far under his performance among those voters elsewhere, where he is up by 79 points.”

    History makes a huge difference in perception and this bleeds into the criminal justice system and the churches.

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