Category: Barack Obama

Fannie Lou, Curtis and Montgomery County Justice

Confederate memorial, Winona, Mississippi

(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.)

By Alan Bean

I had always assumed that the confederate memorial in Winona, Mississippi had been destroyed in 1978 along with the courthouse.  It seemed a bit counter-intuitive, but there was no sign of Civil War nostalgia on the grounds of the new courthouse where Curtis Flowers was convicted of murder in the summer of 2010.

Curtis has been tried for the murder of four people in a Winona furniture store in July, 1996.  He has been convicted four times.  Two trials ended in hung juries.  Three convictions were overturned by the Mississippi Supreme Court, which is currently reviewing his most recent conviction.

Meanwhile, Curtis sits on Parchman prison’s death row.

Friends of Justice is convinced that Curtis Flowers is innocent, but you would be hard pressed to find a white resident of Winona, Mississippi who agrees with us.  At Flower’s 2010 trial, it became apparent, perhaps for the first time, that District Attorney Doug Evans and his investigator, John Johnson, had decided Curtis Flowers was the killer less than three hours after the murder scene was discovered.  The only evidence connecting Curtis with the crime at that time was a check for three days wages found on the desk of the slain Bertha Tardy.  The check was made out to Curtis Flowers.  Though this hardly constituted evidence of wrongdoing, Evans and Johnson centered their investigation on Flowers from the beginning; no other suspects or alternative theories of the crime were ever considered.

The former site of the Montgomery County Jail in Winona, Mississippi

Melanie Wilmoth and I were in Winona this Monday to visit with Archie and Lola Flowers, Curtis’s parents.  We were driving home from a local restaurant when I asked about the location of the old county jail and courthouse.

In June of 1963, Fannie Lou Hamer, Annell Ponder, Sue Johnson and Lawrence Guyot were savagely beaten by several local police officers and a state trooper at the county jail.  A few days later, they were arraigned at the county courthouse.  Their crime: demanding to be served in the white-only restaurant of Winona’s segregated bus depot two years after the federal government integrated bus depots, train stations and airports across the South.

Archie Flowers didn’t answer my question about the old courthouse, he just guided the car in the direction of downtown Winona.  “The courthouse used to be right here,” Lola told me, pointing to the Montgomery County library.

There it stood, the conferate memorial that graces virtually every courthouse in the old South.  This one had been erected in 1909, just 44 years after they drove old Dixie down.   Southern pride still burned strong.  The monument was dedicated “To the Confederacy President Jefferson Davis and the soldiers who fought for state rights.”

Even in 1909, southerners embraced the historical fiction that the War of Northern Aggression had nothing to do with the South’s “peculiar institution.”

MLK display in the Winona libraryThe next morning, Melanie and I returned to the library.  A Civil Rights display featuring pictures of Martin Luther King Jr. greeted us as we entered the room.  I was impressed.  Mississippi is one of three southern states where citizens can choose to celebrate Martin Luther King Day or Robert E. Lee Day, whichever floats your boat.  A Civil Rights display was above and beyond the call of civic duty.

I moved to the desk and asked if the library had any information about the old courthouse and county jail.  “I’m not sure,” the librarian told me.  “If we have anything it will be in the book we’ve got on Montgomery County history.”

She plucked an imposing tome from the library shelves.  It was one of those local histories that most rural counties produce every half century or so.  This one had been published in 1994, three decades after Fannie Lou Hamer and friends were savagely beaten at the county jail and three years before Curtis Flowers went on trial the first time.

Like most county histories, the book began with a section on local history.  Although there was an extensive section on the Native American people who occupied the county before the arrival of white settlers, there was no discussion of slavery.

The book featured articles on every white family with roots in the county and several hundred pictures, but although Montgomery County is 45% African-American, not a single black face appeared anywhere.  Melanie and I weren’t the first readers to notice this.  One reader had scrawled his disgust on the table of contents page.  “Sorry people,” the message read, “us black folks are not listed in family histories.  Apparently we don’t exist though the copyright is 1994.  Go figure racist white folks.  Go Obama!”

The book’s extensive section on the Civil War merely reproduced documents from the war era with not even a passing reference to slavery.  The war was all about Abraham Lincoln’s desire to “destroy all the institutions of the South and withdraw from her people the constitutional guarantees for the protection to property and the right to enjoy the same.”

A visitor to Montgomery County would have no idea that black people had ever lived there or that slavery and Jim Crow segregation were integral to the county’s legacy.  No wonder the note writer was confused and angry.

But that was 1994 and this is 2012.  I doubt you would have seen a civil rights display in the Winona library back when Curtis Flowers was first arrested in 1997.

At first blush, historical myopia and denial have little relevance to the fairness of the Montgomery County criminal justice system.   Fannie Lou Hamer, Annell Ponder, June Johnson and the other civil rights leaders arrested at Winona’s bus depot in 1963 weren’t simply denied justice; their captives took sadistic pleasure in their ability to beat and sexually humiliate the men and women in their control.  Thanks to pressure from the Kennedy White House, the officers were tried in federal court, but an all white, all-male jury acquitted them after deliberating for a matter of minutes.  The law of the land did not apply to black people (especially black civil rights activists) in 1963.

How much had changed when Curtis Flowers went to trial for the first time 34 years later?

A lot.  When Doug Evans illegally kept black residents off the jury, the Mississippi Supreme Court reversed the verdict.  When, at a subsequent trial, five black jurors were selected, all five voted to acquit Mr. Flowers while all seven white voted to acquit.

These facts suggest radical change mixed with a disturbing degree of historical continuity.  Things have changed for the better; but not nearly enough.  That is why the case of Curtis Flowers and hundreds of other Mississippi defendants must be viewed through the lens of the Magnolia State’s troubled racial history.  Did Curtis Flowers get a fair trial in 1997, in 2010, or at any time in between?  You be the judge.

Investigation finds racial disparity in presidential pardons

By Melanie Wilmoth

Not surprisingly, a recent investigation by Dafna Linzer and Jennifer LaFleur of ProPublica revealed that whites are almost four times more likely than are minorities to succeed in receiving a presidential pardon. According to Linzer and LaFleur, these statistics hold true even when accounting for other factors such as the type of crime, the length of sentence, and the gender and age of the applicant.

Although ProPublica’s findings initially did little to indicate why this racial disparity exists, deeper investigation sheds light on the subjectivity that exists within the pardons process.

Linzer and LaFleur report that, during his administration, George W. Bush relied heavily on recommendations from lawyers in the Office of the Pardon Attorney when deciding whether or not to grant a pardon. This paved the way for the pardons office to use subjective standards when analyzing pardon cases and making recommendations to the President. ProPublica found that these standards included subjective factors such as “judgments about the ‘attitude’ and the marital and financial stability of applicants.”

“Bush followed the recommendations of the pardons office in nearly every case,” ProPublica reports, “The results, spread among hundreds of cases over eight years, heavily favored whites.” (more…)

The most influential civil rights champion you’ve never heard of

If you’ve never heard of Stetson Kennedy, you’ll feel as if you’ve known the man all your life after reading this wonderful eulogy by University of Florida professor Paul Ortiz.  Kennedy is generally remembered as a thorn in the side of the Ku Klux Klan, but as Professor Ortiz makes clear, his significance is much deeper and broader than that.  Until this morning, I had never heard Stetson Kennedy’s name mentioned in connection with racism, segregation, white supremacy or the civil rights movement.  How can that be?  AGB 

stetson_kennedy_typing.pngBy Paul OrtizStetson Kennedy passed away on Saturday, Aug. 27. He was 94 years old. Stetson died peacefully in the presence of his beloved wife, Sandra Parks, at Baptist Medical Center South in St. Augustine, Florida.

Stetson Kennedy spent the better part of the 20th century doing battle with racism, class oppression, corporate domination, and environmental degradation in the American South. By mid-century Stetson had become our country’s fiercest tribune of hard truths; vilified by the powerful, Stetson did not have the capacity to look away from injustice. His belief in the dignity of the South’s battered sharecroppers, migrant laborers, and turpentine workers made him the region’s most sensitive and effective folklorist.

Stetson was so relentless, so full of life, that some of us thought that he would trick death the way that he had once fooled the Ku Klux Klan into exposing their lurid secrets to the listeners of the Adventures of Superman radio program in 1947. As recently as April, Stetson gave a fiery speech to hundreds of farm workers and their supporters at a rally in support of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Tampa. Standing in solidarity with Latina/o and Haitian agricultural workers affirmed Stetson’s ironclad belief in the intersections between labor organizing, racial justice, and economic equity. (more…)

Rick Perry’s Big Gamble

By Alan Bean

It no longer matters whether Rick Perry’s The Response extravaganza draws 8,000 or 80,000 ardent Christians to Houston’s Reliant Stadium; the event will be remembered (if it is remembered at all) as a cynical attempt to build a base by driving another wedge into an already fractured religious community.

Perry’s big event would have been inconceivable during the nation’s formative years, and it is hard to imagine any 20th century presidential candidate thinking he could enhance his political stature by consorting with fringe elements on the religious right.  True, George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan courted these same people, but always behind closed doors.

The take-away from The Response is that a Republican presidential aspirant believes an event of this sort is in his political interest.  Rick Perry’s personal religion is irrelevant here; tomorrow’s event is pure politics.

Will the gamble pay off? (more…)

Grover Norquist’s America

By Alan Bean
In a recent post, I suggested that Carrollton, Mississippi, a town that proudly flies the Conderate flag outside its courthouse, reflects the soul of America.  Charles Kiker, my esteemed father-in-law, calls that an overstatement.  This op-ed from Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick illuminates my audacious thesis.  As Patrick notes, small government fundamentalism has captured the conservative movement and, to a large extent, the conservative movement has captured American politics.
True, a Democrat is in the White House and the Senate remains blue.  But anyone who listened to President Obama trying to adopt a tough stance with Republicans the other day will realize that Grover Norquist’s intention has been realized: Democratic presidents can no longer govern as Democrats.  Obama was trying to come on strong, but he sounded scared to death.  Conservatives control the moral consensus of the nation and the President knows it. (more…)

Fox News lacks Common courtesy

Common

This summer, four college interns will be working at the Arlington office of Friends of Justice.  Each week, each intern will write a blog post on a topic of personal interest.  Chaka Holley, a student at the Chicago Theological Seminary, arrived in Texas on Monday night and has been hard at work ever since.  

By Chaka Holley

“Well I’m just a soul whose intentions are good
Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood”

Hip-hop artist, poet and actor Common recites these old-time lyrics in his song “misunderstood”. The lyrics seem fitting now that Common’s creditability, character and personhood are being attacked after First Lady Michelle Obama invited him to perform poetry at a White House event. Fox News and conservatives like Sarah Palin, Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity have criticized the Obama’s for the inviting a supporter of “cop killers” to the White House. Critics accuse the Obama’s of exercising poor judgment due to Common’s support for Asata Shakur and Mumia Abu-Jamal. (more…)

NT Wright: Osama bin Laden and the myth of redemptive violence

By N.T. Wright

N. T.  (Tom) Wright, formerly Bishop of Durham, is now Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Scotland’s University of St Andrews

Osama bin Laden and the myth of redemptive violence

Consider the following scenario. A group of IRA terrorists carry out a bombing raid in London. People are killed and wounded. The group escapes, first to Ireland, then to the United States, where they disappear into the sympathetic hinterland of a country where IRA leaders have in the past been welcomed at the White House. Britain cannot extradite them, because of the gross imbalance of the relevant treaty. So far, this is not far from the truth.But now imagine that the British government, seeing the murderers escape justice, sends an aircraft carrier (always supposing we’ve still got any) to the Nova Scotia coast. From there, unannounced, two helicopters fly in under the radar to the Boston suburb where the terrorists are holed up. They carry out a daring raid, killing the (unarmed) leaders and making their escape. Westminster celebrates; Washington is furious.

What’s the difference between this and the recent events in Pakistan? Answer: American exceptionalism. America is allowed to do it, but the rest of us are not. By what right? Who says? (more…)

Kellogg challenges the colorblind consensus

By Alan Bean

The W.K. Kellogg Foundation recently launched a $75 million grant-making program dedicated to racial healing.  “We believe that all children should have equal access to opportunity,” the foundation’s website reads.  “To make this vision a reality, we direct our grants and resources to support racial healing and to remove systemic barriers that hold some children back. We invest in community and national organizations whose innovative and effective programs foster racial healing. And through action-oriented research and public policy work, we are helping translate insights into new strategies and sustainable solutions.”

In an article written for the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, Dr. Gail Christopher, Kellogg’s vice president for program strategy, addressed the issue squarely:

The vision that guides the work of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation is clear: we envision a nation that marshals its resources to assure that all children thrive.  What may be less self-evident to some is the pernicious and self-perpetuating way in which racism impedes many children’s opportunities to do so. (more…)

Obama’s problem with white folks

By Alan Bean

A new Pew Poll shows that Barack Obama isn’t connecting with white voters.  This is hardly big news: Obama won just 43% of the white vote in the 2008 election.  But his popularity rating with white voters now rests at 38%.  Even more chilling, if you’re a Democrat, a full 60% of the white electorate backed Republican candidates in the 2010 midterm election.

What’s going on here?  Two things. 

First, as we commemorate the 43rd anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination, the Republican Party is still advertising itself (surreptitiously, of course) as the Party of White.  

In the short run, this makes a lot of political sense.  Baby boomers, the demographic currently controlling American politics, are 75% white.  But the “Party of White” strategy will shortly run out of gas.   From the earliest days of European colonization, America has been a majority white nation.  Not for long.  A slight majority of Americans 18 and younger are people of color.  These rapidly shifting demographic patterns have injected a strong dose of cognitive dissonance into the hearts and minds of white folk.  We feel we are losing control.  We pull the red lever because we hope it will preserve the white-dominated world we were born into. (more…)

Teachers are not the problem; poverty is

By Alan Bean

The current assault on America’s teachers has been brutal and bipartisan.  The correlation between family income and student test scores has been clear  for decades, but no one, even our progressive President, wants to acknowledge the obvious. 

In the decades following the civil rights movement, everyone knew that if we sat back and did nothing for poor and struggling families and communities we would eventually be dealing with a great, sprawling undercaste.  The crisis in education is a function of poverty.  We had a choice: schools or prisons.  We chose badly.

There are bad teachers just as there are bad mechanics and bad dentists–that has always been a given.  But bad teachers are not the problem; poor and broken families are the problem.  America chose to leave her most at-risk citizens to their own devices and our teachers live with the consequences every day of the school year, Monday through Friday.  They take these consequences home with them.  The consequences come unbidden in troubling dreams. 

I am not dispassionate and neutral on this issue; my wife and all three of my children are teachers.  I live with these brave people and my perspective has been shaped by their passion and their pain.

You may have seen Diane Ravitch on the Daily Show last week.  This short essay, written for the New York Times, summarizes the thesis of Ravitch’s new book, “The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education.” (more…)