Tulia and Jena: America in Miniature

This guest blog post appears on the God’s Politics Blog sponsored by Sojourners.  You may want to join the discussion there or share your thoughts below.

Alan Bean


Tulia and Jena: America in Miniature

img_2072I moved to Tulia, Texas, in the summer of 1998, a year before a massive drug bust decimated the black side of town. My wife Nancy’s parents, Charles and Patricia Kiker, had just retired to Tulia when the local newspaper rejoiced to see the “city streets cleared of garbage.”

Friends of Justice, a faith-based organization shaped by Micah’s injunction to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly came to life on New Year’s Eve, a few days after Joe Moore was sentenced to 90 years by a Tulia jury.

If you happened to see the PBS documentary “Tulia, Texas”, you will remember an old guy in the black baseball cap-that’s Charles Kiker, a retired Baptist minister who grew up on a farm outside of Tulia.

An unwieldy assemblage of preachers, teachers, farmers, prison guards, and meat packers, we held weekly worship services featuring prayers for justice, the singing of old spirituals and gospel hymns, the reading of letters from prison, and extemporary sermons rooted in the biblical call to justice.

This story is deeply personal for Nancy and me. Friends of Justice worshipped in our living room, and before the fight was over three “drug war orphans” had slept under our roof.

In Jena, Louisiana, shortly before we moved our headquarters from Tulia to Arlington, Texas, we helped organize biweekly meetings in a modest black Baptist church with prayers, preaching, and music.

It is commonly assumed that reporters and pro bono attorneys flock to places like Tulia and Jena because the injustice is too grave to be ignored. Friends of Justice rose to the defense of the defendants in Tulia because no one else would.

There was a vague awareness in progressive circles that something bad was going down in Jena, Louisiana, but the media didn’t know what to do with Jena until Friends of Justice connected the narrative dots. High profile legal firms weren’t willing to invest their precious resources until the Chicago Tribune and CNN transformed Jena into a cause celebre.

We didn’t want Jena to succeed Tulia as America’s most racist community, but it happened anyway. Is it possible to draw attention to small town injustice without polarizing a community along racial lines?

Probably not.

Tulia’s famous drug sting was entirely legal. Lawyers didn’t stand a chance unless they were able to paint undercover agent Tom Coleman as a flaming racist. This sparked a logical chain reaction. If Tom Coleman was an obvious racist, the sheriff, the prosecutor, eight juries, and supportive white residents must be racists too.

Fortunately for the Tulia defendants, Tom Coleman gave lawyers plenty of ammunition.

Everything changed in Jena when the Reverend Al Sharpton got involved. An experienced controversialist, Sharpton knew how to frame a story. The local district attorney, the New York preacher-activist argued, had one kind of justice for white kids and another kind for black kids; ergo, the prosecution of the Jena Six was inherently racist.

When black and white resentments collide, productive dialogue becomes impossible.

White residents see their beloved community smeared by the big city media and start insisting that race has no relevance to the story. Shocked by these denials, black residents assure reporters that racism is a huge problem in their community. Before long, “town divided” stories are sprouting like the flowers of May in the nation’s flagship newspapers.

Little towns like Tulia and Jena are America in miniature. The election of Barack Obama shows how far we have come; Tulia and Jena tell us how far we still have to go.

By 1970, the old Jim Crow regime was history and the school systems of both Tulia and Jena were fully integrated. But how much had really changed?

While black and white children attended the same schools in the early 1970s, the Klu Klux Klan was still showing up at Jena political rallies in full regalia. How much had really changed?

In 1991, the vast majority of Jena’s white residents cast their ballots for a white supremacist named David Duke. How much had really changed?

In 2007, two nooses swung from a tree in the courtyard of Jena High School. The school superintendent dismissed the incident as a childish prank, and when black students protested, the local district attorney threatened to end their lives with a stroke of his pen. How much had really changed?

Much has changed; how much is hard to say. For at least two generations it had been considered impolite to discuss America’s racial history in polite company. White teachers moved from segregated to integrated schools without interpreting the momentous shift for their students. Few preachers were foolish enough to address the thorny issue of race from the pulpit. There was no safe place where black and white Jena residents could unpack their overstuffed historical baggage. The subject has been virtually taboo. We talk about race when we’re too angry to keep quiet – but that just makes things worse. In this regard, Tulia and Jena are egregious cases of normal. How and where can racial injustice and the need for racial reconciliation be broached in public without creating the social fractures we witnessed in Tulia and Jena? Where can America’s long-deferred discussion begin? The election of Barack Obama has opened an exciting and unpredictable window of opportunity, but what’s the next step?

A new kind of conversation calls for a new kind of institution. Since our problem is fundamentally spiritual, we need a new kind of church. I have a vision of a multiracial congregation organized around a mission of racial reconciliation and racial justice, a place where black and white Christians can talk things through in safety.

Planted with great care and devotion, this seed just might take root even in the harsh native soil of America. Such a church might one day be able to survive on its own, standing as a model and a rock of hope for conventional congregations. The remedies available in the current religious market place don’t appear to be working. The gospel of Jesus Christ can heal the wounds ripped open by America’s tragic racial history, but only if we are prepared to make a fresh beginning.

Alan Bean is the Executive Director of Friends of Justice.