Baptist scholar reviews Taking out the Trash in Tulia, Texas

This review of Taking out the Trash in Tulia, Texas appears in the current issue of Christian Ethics Today, a journal published for pastors and ethicists on the thoughtful end of the Baptist spectrum.  Dr. Larry McSwain was Professor of Church and Community, Dean of the School of Theology and Provost of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary from 1970-1993.  Since 2003, he has been Associate Dean of the Doctor of Ministry Degree Program and Professor of Leadership at the McAfee School of Theology in Atlanta, GA. 

Alan Bean, Taking Out the Trash in Tulia, Texas. DeSoto, TX: Advanced Concept Design Books, 2010.

This is a difficult book to read.  It is difficult not because of the vocabulary, the writing style, nor overblown conceptualization.  Its content is shocking, earthy, and so realistic as to surprise most Christian Ethics Today readers. It is difficult to accept the reality of the story told here, but it is a story that can be repeated across communities of the nation, large and small.

Alan Bean collected dozens of vignettes of events surrounding the arrest for drug dealing of nineteen black residents of Tulia, Texas in 1999.  There were 132 indictments in the Texas panhandle generated by the testimony of an undercover policeman named Tom Coleman.  Some in the community were incredulous that there could be that many drug dealers in the relatively small, poor black community of Tulia.  The saga of the surprise arrests in the early morning that brought defendants to the court house in various stages of undress soon moved to the courtroom where incompetent defense attorneys, suspect legal procedures, and dominant white juries assured the conviction and excessive sentencing for each.

The characters of the book could be taken out of a Flannery O’Connor short story.  Joe Moore is an older black hog farmer who is a key leader in the community arrested with the group and sentenced to 90 years in prison.  Gary Gardner, an overweight, arthritic “redneck” wheat farmer with an uncontrollable foul mouth is a long-time advocate of civil rights, offended by the treatment of blacks in Tulia, and enters the fray for justice.  Alan Bean is a central character in the book: a Canadian with a Ph.D. in church history, married into the Kiker clan of Tulia, a guitarist and composer of folk music, he becomes a central opponent of the criminal justice process at great person sacrifice for himself and his family. 

In response to the multiple convictions with little due process for the black residents of Tulia, Bean and his family, Gardner, Charles and Patricia Kiker and leaders of the black community form Friends of Justice to take up the cause for black defendants labeled “scumbags” in the local press.  The knowledge of networking skills of this leadership group of Friends of Justice soon has locals organized for protests at the state capital in Austin and drawing the national press and civil justice organizations to Swisher County to challenge the veracity of Tom Coleman and the justice process.  After years of effort, the details of which require reading the book, Coleman’s credibility was challenged, convictions were overturned, and the Texas justice system paid heavy judgments to the defendants and their attorneys.

Dr. Larry McSwain

This is a book worth reading for its analyses on multiple levels of insight.  It is a remarkable analysis of the social changes affecting American agriculture with the consequences of growing racial polarization in small towns.  Its anthropological insights into the black culture of a small community and the interactions between black and white neighbors are on the level of classic studies such as Street Corner Society.  The impact of a few dissenters to the dominant ethos with all of the conflict it generated in the community is a study in community change and the power of a determined few. The role of small town newspapers is analyzed historically in both positive and negative ways. The attention of national media in bringing pressure on local entities is a case study in the importance of outside resources to create change.  And finally, the role of a few families with deep community roots who choose to live against the grain of the community’s values and the costs paid for their stubbornness is worthy of study by those who would be prophets of change in their own hometown.

Larry L. McSwain, McAfee School of Theology