Category: Fannie Lou Hamer

The South, still ruled by ‘the handful’

Fannie Lou Hamer

By Joe Atkins, Labor South

Fannie Lou Hamer, a folk philosopher of the civil rights movement in the Mississippi Delta, knew what she was up against in a state and region where an entrenched hard-right oligarchy ruled at the expense of the majority.

“With the people, for the people, by the people — I crack up when I hear it,” said the former field hand, a woman wise far beyond her sixth grade education. “I say, with the handful, for the handful, by the handful, ’cause that’s what really happens.”
Hamer spoke those words decades ago, but they’re just as true today as hard-right political leaders in Mississippi and across the South once again circle the wagons to make sure they stay in power even if it means suffering across the land.
Witness the spectacle of Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant and the Republican bosses in the state legislature opposing an expansion of Medicaid that would help 300,000 needy Mississippians even though the federal government will largely fund it. They’re not going to threaten their party or their own political necks by giving Obamacare a chance succeed. (more…)

Friends of Justice brings it all back home

Robert E. Lee iconography in Jackson MS

By Alan Bean

This is Day 6 of our Friends of Justice Reunion Tour.  We started off in Houston, Texas at a vigil for Ramsey Muniz.  Nancy Bean opened and closed the event with prayer while I explained how, back in 1994, Ramsey Muniz was framed by the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Then it was on to Church Point, Louisiana, where we visited with Ann and James Colomb, their children and grandchildren.  Six years ago, Nancy and I were in Lafayette when Ann and three of her sons were released from prison.  At their trial, thirty-one convicted drug dealers testified that they had sold millions of dollars to the Colomb family.  I had been arguing that this testimony was the product of perjury parties behind bars produced and directed by Brett Grayson, the ethically challenged Assistant US Attorney.  Three months after the Colombs were convicted, the truth finally emerged in all its sleazy glory and federal judge Tucker Melancon ordered that Ann and her sons be released immediately and that a full-scale investigation of the federal prison system be launched.  It was the Department of Justice that should have been investigated, but that would have landed a bit too close to home.

The next day we drove to Jackson, MS where we visited with attorneys associated with Curtis Flowers, the native of Winona, MS who has been tried six (6) times on the same murder charges.  The Office for Capital Defense is now located in the Robert E. Lee building in Jackson, an elegant art nouveau building constructed in the 1920s as an homage to the iconic Confederate general. (more…)

Franklin Graham and the black-white gap in American evangelicalism

Franklin Graham impersonates his famous father

By Alan Bean

I have never met Lisa Sharon Harper, but she’s been reading my mail.

Why, she asks, was Franklin Graham unwilling to apply the term “Christian” to president Obama?

Graham has trouble seeing the president as a fellow believer, Sharon Harper argues, because white Christians are rarely forced to wrestle with systemic injustice and are therefore uncomfortable with Christians who make this issue front and center.

I have a few minor quibbles with the argument below.

Many, perhaps most, black evangelical churches are just as fixated on personal salvation as white evangelicals.  Martin Luther King didn’t enjoy the enthusiastic support of most black Baptist churches in the South, and his social gospel remains suspect in many corners of the black church.

Secondly, Franklin Graham’s daddy, the iconic American evangelist Billy Graham, wasn’t quite as racially advanced as this post suggests.  True, he did open his crusades to black worshippers before most white evangelicals were comfortable with integrated evangelism, but as Darren Dochuk points out in his excellent study of California evangelicalism, Graham realized that segregation was becoming an embarrassment in America and thus an impediment to evangelism.  (more…)

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.

A whirlwind tour: Reflections on the Mississippi Delta

Mississippi Delta

By Melanie Wilmoth

It has been a few weeks since Alan Bean and I returned from our whirlwind trip to Mississippi. Since we arrived back in Texas, I have spent quite a bit of time reflecting on the trip and all of our various adventures and encounters while we were there.

We planned the trip to Mississippi for several reasons. We are currently working on a few cases in the Delta and had some research to conduct. We also arranged to meet with other advocacy organizations doing similar work in Mississippi so that we could build relationships and collaborate with them on future endeavors. In addition, we planned to meet up for a civil rights tour with a professor and several students from the University of Florida’s Samuel Proctor Oral History Program. With all of this on our agenda, our days were filled to the brim. Needless to say, I was pretty exhausted and exponentially more enlightened as the trip came to an end.

When we arrived in Jackson, MS, we were welcomed by the wonderful staff of the John M. Perkins Foundation where we stayed that night. The next morning, we met with the Foundation’s Special Projects Coordinator and learned more about the Foundation’s history and its goal of bringing racial reconciliation to Mississippi. From there, we touched base with the Program Director for the ACLU of Mississippi. She informed us of the current ALCU initiatives around immigration, youth justice, and the school-to-prison pipeline and we shared with her about the work of Friends of Justice, discussing opportunities for future dialogue and collaboration.

After two successful meetings with advocacy organizations in Jackson, we made our way to Cleveland, MS. There, we met with Professor Paul Ortiz and several University of Florida history students. Dr. Ortiz and the students were incredibly friendly and interested in the work of Friends of Justice. After meeting them, I was even more excited about joining them on the civil rights tour. (more…)

North Carolina poised to repeal Racial Justice Act

By Alan Bean

In the dwindling days of the 2009 legislative session, lawmakers in North Carolina, voting along party lines, passed a Racial Justice Act that allows death row defendants to use statistics to corroborate claims of racial bias in the criminal justice system. Then came the 2010 election. With the Republicans now in control of the state legislature, prosecutors from across the state are calling for the repeal of the Racial Justice Act.

The controversy centers in a study by the Michigan State University Law School finding that qualified black jurors in North Carolina are more than twice as likely to be excluded from juries as qualified white jurors.

Of the 154 inmates currently on death row in North Carolina, 33 were tried by all-white juries and 40 had juries with only one person of color. The state is approximately 70% white and 25% African-American. (more…)

When the Devil plays God

Byron De La Beckwith the younger

By Alan Bean

“The devil will sometimes play the part of God and let things happen.”  Byron De La Beckwith Jr.

The Jackson Clarion Ledger has published two articles stemming from an interview with Byron De La Beckwith Jr.  Byron II claims his father didn’t kill civil rights leader Medgar Evers in June of 1963. 

He said those behind Evers’ assassination belonged to the Citizens’ Council, which produced television shows in which “experts” declared that African-Americans were genetically inferior. He would not share the names of the men involved. He said they later joined the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, believed to be responsible for at least 10 killings in the 1960s.

 Jerry Mitchell reports that the FBI will be looking into De La Beckwith’s assertions, but I doubt new facts will emerge.  De La Beckwith, like his daddy, enjoys the limelight and intends to make the most of it.

More interesting, from my perspective, is Byron the Second’s description of his personal contribution to 1960s anti-civil rights terrorism and his sad reflections on the current status of the Mississippi Ku Klux Klan.  (more…)

J. Alfred Smith, Sr.: “Reclaiming our Prophetic Voice”

Rev. J. Alfred Smith, Sr.

I first met J. Alfred Smith, Sr in 1995 when he preached a series of prophetic-evangelistic sermons at First Baptist Church Kansas City, KS.  Charles Kiker (a founding member of Friends of Justice) was pastor of FBC at the time and I was there to provide the music.  Dr. Smith and I were chatting informally before the first service; he was telling me about the impact the war on drugs was having in his community.  To my utter astonishment, the man began to weep uncontrollably–something I had never seen a preacher do before.  He wasn’t the slightest bit embarrassed by his tears.  In fact, he behaved as if weeping was the normal and appropriate response to the circumstances in which he found himself.

J. Alfred Smith, Sr. was Senior Pastor of Oakland’s Allen Temple, one of the premier pulpits in America.  He is now Pastor Emeritus of that church; his son, J. Alfred Smith, Jr., has since taken over as Senior Pastor.

J. Alfred Smith, Sr. and several of his parishioners were tremendously supportive during our justice struggle in Tulia, Texas.  It was there I began to understand the tears I had witnessed several years earlier.  I last saw Dr. Smith at the New Baptist Covenant gathering in Atlanta a couple of years ago.

The sermon below addresses several issues regularly featured on this blog.  Dr. Smith talks about the betrayal of “the prosperity gospel”, the war on drugs, mass incarceration, Martin Luther King, Fannie Lou Hamer, Dorothy Day, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and the need for a new kind of Christianity, or, from an African American perspective, the recovery of the old prophetic gospel that once animated the civil rights movement. (more…)

Tim Wise: Obama’s post-racial road to nowhere

By Alan Bean

Friends of Justice believes in dragging “subtle” racism out of the shadows.  Our narrative campaign in response to the Curtis Flowers case, for instance, asserts that everyone associated with the prosecution of this case grew up in a Jim Crow world where black people like Fannie Lou Hamer could be tortured by police officers with impunity.  When Mississippi state senator Lydia Chassaniol delivered a keynote address to the proudly racist Council of Conservative Citizens, the regional media gave her a pass.  Her views, we suggested, were too mainstream to be criticized.   

Our approach flies in the face of the prevailing liberal doctrine of colorblind universalism.  When discussing public policy issues related to criminal justice, for instance, colorblind universalists make two claims: racism isn’t nearly as bad in 2010 as it was in 1963; and, white racial resentment is so strong that the case for criminal justice reform must be presented in strictly race-neutral terms. 

The logical contradiction here should be obvious: if racism has diminished so much, why should be so concerned about white racial resentment? (more…)

Journey Back to Parchman, Hank Thomas

Hank Thomas in 1961

Fifty years ago, Hank Thomas entered Parchman prison as a Freedom Rider.  I highlighted this distressing chapter of the Mississippi civil rights struggle in a post designed to establish historical context for the Curtis Flowers case.  Recently, I shared a personal encounter with Parchman when I unsuccessfully attempted to visit Curtis Flowers.  Last week, Hank Thomas was greeted with smiles and handshakes; in 1961 he was welcomed to Parchman by sneering guards.  

Reilly Morse, a senior attorney and a founding staff member in the Biloxi office of the Mississippi Center for Justice, has shared his reflections on Hank Thomas’s return to the notorious plantation prison.  Hank’s personal account is pasted below.  Both articles appear in the most recent edition of Facing South, a publication of the Institute for Southern Studies. (more…)