(This post is part of a series concerning Curtis Flowers, an innocent man convicted of a horrific crime that has divided a small Mississippi town. Information on the Flowers case can be found here.)
Mississippi State Representative Bobby Howell will be re-introducing a bill designed to convict Curtis Flowers of Winona. A recent article in the Greenwood Commonwealth lays out the basic facts surrounding the case: “Curtis Giovanni Flowers has been tried five times for murder in a 1996 quadruple homicide at Tardy Furniture in Winona with every trial being overturned on appeal or ending in a hung jury. Howell said he doesn’t think Montgomery County — with a population of about 12,000 — can field a jury of people who don’t already know about the case.”
This is nonsense and Howell knows it. The challenge isn’t to seat a jury; that can be done with no difficulty at all. The trick is to seat a jury with lots of white people and few black jurors. The Mississippi Supreme Court has already rebuked the Grenada DA for attempting, illegally, to keep blacks off the jury in the third Flowers trial. Interviewed by Tom Mangold of the British Broadcasting Corporation, former Supreme Court Judge Oliver Diaz put it this way: “We reversed because the jury selection process ended up not being fair. Every challenge the state had was used against African Americans and the only African American that was seated was when the state ran out of challenges and could not challenge anymore and one was seated.”
But it doesn’t end there. Black jurors are much more likely to convict Flowers if they know nothing about his reputation in Montgomery County’s black community. This is a very weak case–far weaker, in fact, than is generally recognized (more on that later). The State’s case is built on largely meaningless physical evidence and a string of hopelessly compromised eyewitnesses who “remembered” seeing Flowers in the vicinity of the crime after investigators offered them a $30,000 reward. Whoever killed four people at the Tardy furniture store in 1996 is a monster–everyone agrees on that point. But that’s just the problem for those who know anything about the defendant: he is an easy-going guy with a love of gospel music. Some people are capable of killing four people over a minor salary dispute, but black Winona residents have a hard time believing that Curtis Flowers is one of them.
If black jurors must be on the jury (and Doug Evans can’t keep them off without resorting to illegal tactics) the prosecution wants them to know as little about the defendant as possible. Thus far, the media (to the extent it has shown an interest in the issue at all) has been swallowing arguments advanced by Mr. Evans, Representative Bobby Howell and State Senator Lydia Chassaniol. All three have close links to the racist Council of Conservative Citizens, an organization that, until recently, dominated the political life of the region. In his report on the Flowers case, BBC reporter Tom Mangold interviewed a handful of CCC leaders. I am pasting the relevant portion of the “Mississippi Smoldering” story so you can get a feel for the organization.
REPORTER: A run up north on Interstate 55 takes me to Grenada to meet members of the Council of Conservative Citizens. Their membership is secret, their influence patchy at best—they represent the rump of the good ole boys from the rural South, all white to the last man. They have all the predictable hate objects, but they do love Caucasian Christians—and our British National Party. We meet half a dozen of them in a modest motel off the Interstate, where they have reserved a back room for the encounter, and decorated it with a huge Confederate flag. I spoke to Brian Pace, the 25-year-old Field Organizer and Bill Lord, a former undertaker and founding member of the Council.
REPORTER: Do you believe that the white race is threatened in the U.S. by non-white immigration?
BILL LORD: Well it has already been said that in the next 15 years we will be a minority in this country. Each race has its own culture. It is alright for them to practice theirs but they should not take ours away from us. It is a threat and we are probably the most discriminated race in the country.
REPORTER: Is the council then a racist body?
BILL LORD: What you term racist . . . if you mean by racist being proud of your heritage and proud of where you’re from, then I plead guilty . . . if it means that you are against someone because of their race, creed, or color, no sir we are not racist.
BRIAN PACE: We believe that everyone one way and another believes in ethnic purity . . . the blacks, the Mexicans, the Muslims, the Jews . . . everyone believes they should stick to their own.
REPORTER: The words “ethnic purity” do have an unpleasant connotation.
BILL LORD: Ethnic purity, cultural purity . . . we are Southerners . . . we consider ourselves to be our own distinct people . . . we believe that everybody has the right to preserve their way and have self determination in their own way.
REPORTER: Mississippi is now planning to mandate the teaching of civil rights in its state schools—a small step, one might imagine to helping today’s youngsters understand and come to terms with their parents’ and grandparents’ behavior. Predictably the Council doesn’t see it that way.
BRIAN PACE: I think it is another step to communism . . . forcing kids to do what they don’t want to do. Whatever happened to freedom of association? Whatever happened to freedom to think? It seems that free speech is being squandered. This mandating all it is gonna do is have a bunch of white and black and Mexican kids sitting around a table and apologizing to the blacks. And that’s just driving another wedge. It is not 1960 anymore it is time to move on.
REPORTER: I haven’t heard the word “reconciliation.” Is there reconciliation with the blacks?
BILL LORD: Well I wonder what you mean by reconciliation? We reach out to anybody who wants to join with us but we are not going to go out and try and integrate with them and go along with liberal policies.
REPORTER: Should Mississippi apologize for the treatment of blacks historically?
BILL LORD: No sir. I tell you what, I never owned any slaves and none of my forefathers did and certainly there were some bad things done against whites during the civil rights revolution. If there is gonna be an apology it should be both ways
BRIAN PACE: What are we going to do? Start apologizing to clowns for being looked down upon for 100 years? We can’t continually be apologizing. We got to go forward, we can’t get stuck on those issues.
Tourism booster, Lydia Chassaniol, is a proud member of the Council of Conservative Citizens, but she doesn’t think that makes her a racist. Here’s the relevant portion of her interview with Mangold:
REPORTER: Senator Chassaniol is also a member of an ultra right wing group with deeply embedded views on race—the Mississippi Council of Conservative Citizens, an organization officially shunned by mainstream politicians throughout the South. The Senator addressed one of their annual conferences, explaining she’ll talk to almost anyone who wants her to talk. Her opponents see this as either tactlessness, or a form of naïve, unconscious racism. Senator Chassaniol however is consistently cheerful in admitting her membership of the group.
LYDIA CHASSANIOL: I will have to answer yes, I belong to the local group because they serve as a booster club for one of the local schools. They raise money for the school—that’s about all they do. What I would like to point out to your listeners this is not the same Mississippi as it was 40 or 50 years ago . . . people change, attitudes change. Even people who in their youth would never have thought about sitting down at a lunch counter or belonging to a civic club where there were black people involved, it’s done routinely now and the people of Mississippi are now getting along very well.
What the Senator doesn’t tell you is that the school the CCC raises money for in Mississippi is an all-white segregation academy formed in the wake of federally mandated integration in the early 1970s. I’m sure it’s a fine school (Chassaniol once taught there) and I’m also sure they need help from community boosters; but the origins of the school are illuminating.
Chassaniol is certainly right that race relations have improved considerably since the civil rights era, in Montgomery County and throughout Mississippi. Unfortunately, the woman backing the Flowers legislation belongs to an organization that regards the civil rights movement with utter contempt. Does Chassaniol share this perspective? It’s difficult to say. She will have to answer that question herself. But we are clearly dealing with a species of racial insensitivity rooted in the tragic history of Montgomery County.