Challenging the new Jim Crow, part 2

This is the second excerpt from a speech recently delivered at the Campaign to End the Death Penalty conference on the campus of the University of Chicago.  The introduction can be found here. AGB

The new Jim Crow comes to Tulia, Texas

By Alan Bean

Sheriff Larry P. Stewart

To understand how radically our society has changed it is helpful to trace the life stories of the folks running the new Jim Crow machinery in small southern towns. The stories you are about to hear are taken from cases investigated by Friends of Justice, but they are symptomatic of a national disease.

I started talking about the new Jim Crow in Tulia, Texas when I realized that a drug bust that swept up half the adult black males in town was standard operating procedure.

There is a picture of Larry Stewart in an old copy of the Tulia Herald. It was Cowboy Day at the Tulia High School, circa 1960, and Larry came dressed as an old-time Texas Sheriff, badge and all. But Larry wasn’t supposed to grow up to be a lawman; like most local boys he wanted to farm like his daddy did before him.

At first, things went according to plan. Larry Stewart spent a year in college in Abilene, then started farming the family land. Times were good in the 1960s. Swisher County farmers were pumping oceans of water out of the Ogallala Aquifer and the Texas panhandle was blooming like a rose. Three of the top ten agricultural counties in the United States were located between Amarillo and Lubbock.

Throughout the late 1950s and most of the 60s, the strong demand for field labor drew dispossessed black sharecroppers from East Texas to little panhandle towns like Tulia. Folks didn’t want them living in town, of course. Abandoned farm shacks and rusted railroad cars were loaded up on flatbed trucks and deposited in a two-block square plot of land across the tracks from Tulia. They called it the Sunset Addition.

People lived without running water, flush toilets or baths and during the winter, children huddled around wood-burning stoves. But that side of life was largely invisible to Larry Stewart and the rest of the people living on the white side of the tracks. All the talk was about the string of bootleg bars in Sunset and the dirty, no-good people who filled them to overflowing every weekend. The police rarely entered Sunset unless there was a killing and even then, they just picked up the body. These crimes were rarely investigated and charges were almost never filed.

White folks looked down their noses at their black and brown field hands, but the local economy couldn’t survive without manual labor and everybody knew it. The owner of the grain elevator once told his black workers, “If you can stay out of the graveyard, I’ll keep you out of the jailhouse.”

Then everything changed. Commodity prices started falling and the irrigation water gave out. Interest rates were sky high and only the big farmers who could afford to buy enormous tractors, combines and cotton picking machines were making any money. Larry Stewart was still farming the family land in the mid 1980s, but he needed a town job to pay the bills.

Fortunately, Tulia’s economic storm cloud had a small silver lining. The criminal justice industry was exploding. The local police and sheriff’s departments were hiring and buying sleek new police cars. Larry signed on with the Sheriff’s department, first as a reserve officer, then as a deputy.

Meanwhile, a private prison was going up west of Tulia. A group of developers from Houston had conned six desperate towns in West Texas into building prisons they didn’t need. For six years the Tulia unit sat empty. Then Ann Richards, the liberal governor, launched a prison-building project. When George W. Bush became governor, the incarceration Ferrari went into overdrive.

Shortly after Larry Stewart became Sheriff in 1991, the war on drugs came to Swisher County. A twenty-six county narcotics task force had been organized in Amarillo and soon Larry Stewart and his deputies were running practice drug busts in isolated homes, preparing themselves for their first real drug raid. In 1998, Sheriff Stewart learned that if he hired an undercover narcotics officer he could clean up his town for free. The federal Byrne grant program would pay the salary and ancillary costs and the task force in Amarillo would provide training and oversight.

Most of the black men who once picked Swisher County cotton were now bouncing from one minimum wage job to another, with long stretches of idleness in between. According to rumor, most of these men were living with their mothers or shacking up with a girlfriend with a welfare check. There was a lot of suspicious activity, especially on the weekends. The police couldn’t prove it, but it was widely suspected that the crack epidemic had found its way to Swisher County.

A skinny young man named Tom Coleman was hired, given a fake driver’s license, fake probation papers and a new name: TJ Dawson. The eighteen month undercover operation was underway.

The sting got off to a slow start. Coleman complained that nobody in the black community would sell him drugs. Then Coleman was indicted on theft charges by his former boss, the Sheriff of nearby Cochran County and Larry Stewart was forced to arrest his own undercover man.

The sheriff’s lifelong dream of cleaning up Tulia was hanging by a thread. If he called up the Sheriff of Cochran County, he was bound to learn things he didn’t want to know. So Larry waited patiently for his deputy to work out his legal issues, then put him back to work—no questions asked.

Suddenly, Tom Coleman was a drug-buying machine. Every time he came to town somebody sold him a little baggie of powdered cocaine—sometimes two or three deals went down in a single day. After eighteen months on the mean streets of Tulia, Coleman had purchased 132 baggies of powder cocaine from forty-seven “drug kingpins”.

The only evidence Coleman needed to put a Tulia kingpin in prison was a baggie and his uncorroborated word. If Larry Stewart, a Sunday school teaching, song-leading Elder at the local Church of Christ, believed Coleman was telling the truth, Coleman was telling the truth.

When I read a celebratory article in the local paper titled, “Tulia Streets Cleared of Garbage” I smelled a rat. So did my wife, her parents, a local farmer and most of Tulia’s African American community. If you want to know the rest of the story you can buy my book.