Category: Race

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.

‘Michelle Alexander: Jim Crow Still Exists in America’

By Melanie Wilmoth

In a recent episode of Fresh Air on NPR, Dave Davies interviews attorney and author Michelle Alexander. In her book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Alexander argues that, as a result of the war on drugs, the U.S. has created a system of mass incarceration which disproportionately targets people of color.

“The war on drugs,” Alexander states, “was part of a grand Republican Party strategy, known as the Southern Strategy, of using racially coded get-tough appeals on issues of crime and welfare to appeal to poor and working-class whites, particularly in the South, who were resentful of, anxious about, threatened by many of the gains of African-Americans in the civil rights movement.”

The “wave of punitiveness” and get-tough policies that followed the declaration of the war on drugs had an incredible impact on communities of color. Although African-Americans make up about 13% of the general population, they make up nearly 40% of the prison population. “In major American cities today,” Alexander points out, “more than half of working-age African-American men either are under are correctional control or are branded felons.” (more…)

Newt plays the race card

By Alan Bean

When Newt Gingrich calls Barack Obama the “food stamp president,” is he making a crude appeal to white racial resentment, or is he taking a race-neutral stand on economic policy?

To put the question another way, are we witnessing a return to the racially coded Willy Horton ads that brought George H. W. Bush back from the political grave? 

The NPR story below gives both sides of the debate but, like most news coverage, substitutes he-said-she-said quotations for a nuanced discussion of the issue.  Tali Mendelberg’s The Race Card is the definitive work on racial coding.  Mendelberg notes that American politicians are no longer able to use race in an overt fashion.  Since the civil rights era, he says, the idea of equality is too firmly established in American social life for overt appeals to white supremacy to work.  This creates the impression that racism has no meaningful place in the political game, but such is not the case.  White Americans are racially biased, but they also embrace the ideal of full racial equality.  This is why racial coding can be highly effective. (more…)

Texas redistricting case: A challenge to the Voting Rights Act?

The redistricting saga in Texas is causing concern throughout the nation. Not only could the redistricting case severely diminish the impact of minority voters in the 2012 elections, but it will also likely determine which party will take the four additional Congressional seats that Texas gained as a result of population growth.

The Republican-dominated state legislature drew the highly disputed district maps. “At least three of the four new congressional districts were drawn in a way that seemed likely to favor Anglo Republican candidates,” ProPublica reports,” — Even though Latinos and African-Americans accounted for most of the state’s population growth.”

The case is currently being heard by the Supreme Court and Texas is desperately seeking a resolution before the 2012 elections.

The ProPublica report below, offers an excellent overview of the ongoing legal battle and the potential effects that redistricting could have on parts of the Voting Rights Act. MW

Will the Supreme Court strike down part of the Voting Rights Act?

By Lois Beckett, ProPublica

Yesterday afternoon, the Supreme Court heard arguments in a Texas redistricting case that could have major implications for minority voters — as well as determine which party is likely to control Congress after the 2012 elections.

Here’s our guide to why the case matters, why it could pose a challenge to part of the Voting Rights Act, and what impact the Court’s ruling could have on voters across the country.

How did this case end up in front of the Supreme Court?

At its most basic, the case is contesting which district maps Texas will use in the 2012 elections.

This seems like a dry question, but it’s not. Thanks to population growth, Texas is gaining four seats in Congress, and how the district lines are drawn is likely to determine whether those additional seats will be won by Democrats or Republicans — and how big an impact minority voters will have in deciding who the new representatives will be.

Because those four seats could help determine which party controls the House of Representatives, the Texas case is being closely watched across the country.

As it has done before, the Republican-dominated state legislature drew maps that heavily favor Republicans.

At least three of the four new congressional districts were drawn in a way that seemed likely to favor Anglo Republican candidates — even though Latinos and African-Americans accounted for most of the state’s population growth. (more…)

Immigration: rhetoric vs. reality

Although incarceration rates in the United States remain near historic highs, anti-immigration fervor has replaced tough-on-crime rhetoric as the primary expression of America’s punitive consensus.  As Chris Kromm notes in this incisive piece of analysis (originally published in Facing South), the current orgy of anti-immigrant hysteria has nothing to do with demographic reality and everything to do with a perceived political opportunity.  AGB

Immigration: Rhetoric vs. Reality

By Chris Kromm

Just as immigration is growing as a hot political topic in the South and country, the number of immigrants is in steep decline.

A new study from Princeton’s Mexican Migration Project finds that, for the first time in 60 years, net migration has fallen to zero — and is probably “a little bit negative.” That’s in line with analysis by groups like the Pew Hispanic Center, which have found that births in U.S.-based families has overtaken immigration as the chief driver in Latino community growth.

In fact, immigration has been tapering off since its 2000 peak; theories for decline include increased prosperity in Mexico, shrinking Latino families and criminal activity along the border.

One factor that likely hasn’t had any effect: Get-tough immigration policies, from stepped-up federal deportations to controversial new state-level initiatives, which are too recent to explain the decade-long decline.

That hasn’t stopped the push for strict new immigration measures, especially in Southern states which have seen dramatic demographic shifts in recent years. This month, new laws requiring that employers cross-check the eligibility of jobseekers using the troubled E-Verify system go into effect in Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, South Carolina and Tennessee.

But portions of the laws are now hung up in court after lawsuits from activist groups and, in Alabama’s case, a challenge from the Obama administration. (more…)

Pat Buchanan may be finished at MSNBC

Conservative icon Pat Buchanan may be losing his pulpit at left-leaning MSNBC.  Reports in the Washington Post, Slate, and the HuffPost indicate that MSNBC president Pat Griffin is on the verge of cutting his network’s ties to Buchanan.  Color of Change has been insisting that the conservative pundit be fired since the publication of Buchanan’s Suicide of a Superpower: Will America Survive to 2025.  The book contains a chapter called “The end of white America” in which it is argued that the loss of a shared European culture and a common Christian heritage is robbing the nation of its traditional character.

This quote, recently aired on NPR’s The Diane Rehm Show, provides a good synopsis of Buchanan’s position

For what is a nation?

Is it not a people of a common ancestry, culture, and language who worship the same God, revere the same heroes, cherish the same history, celebrate the same holidays, share the same music, poetry, art, literature, held together, in Lincoln’s words, by “bonds of affection … mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battle-field, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearth-stone”?

If that is what a nation is, can we truly say America is still a nation? The European and Christian core of our country is shrinking. The birth rate of our native born has been below replacement level for decades. By 2020, deaths among white Americans will exceed births, while mass immigration is altering forever the face of America.

Buchanan says he took the controversial chapter title from an article in the Atlantic written by Vassar professor Hua Hsu.  Hsu’s lengthy piece traces a perceived white identity crisis through the 1990s and the first decade of the twenty-first century.  The article features the work of Temple sociologist Matt Wray who is paying close attention to the impact the academy’s critique of white supremacy is having on his students. (more…)

‘The random horror of the death penalty’

Below is a New York Times editorial summarizing a recent study conducted by Stanford law professor John Donohue. Donohue’s research focuses on the relationship between the heinousness of a crime and the likelihood that an individual accused of a crime will be sentenced to death. The results of his research, which shed light on the arbitrary and discriminatory nature of capital punishment in the U.S.,  indicate that “inmates on death row are indistinguishable from equally violent offenders who escape [the death] penalty.” MW

The Random Horror of the Death Penalty

By LINCOLN CAPLAN

The Supreme Court has not banned capital punishment, as it should, but it has long held that the death penalty is unconstitutional if randomly imposed on a handful of people. An important new study based on capital cases in Connecticut provides powerful evidence that death sentences are haphazardly meted out, with virtually no connection to the heinousness of the crime.

A number of studies in the last three decades have shown that black defendants are more likely to be sentenced to death if their victim is white rather than black. But defenders of capital punishment often respond to those studies by arguing that the “worst of the worst” are sentenced to death because their crimes are the most egregious.

The Connecticut study, conducted by John Donohue, a Stanford law professor, completely dispels this erroneous reasoning. It analyzed all murder cases in Connecticut over a 34-year period and found that inmates on death row are indistinguishable from equally violent offenders who escape that penalty. It shows that the process in Connecticut — similar to those in other death-penalty states — is utterly arbitrary and discriminatory.

From 1973, when Connecticut passed a death penalty law, to 2007, 4,686 murders were committed in the state. Of those, 205 were death-eligible cases (capital murders that include the killing of a police officer, murder for hire, murder-rape and murder committed during a kidnapping) that resulted in some kind of conviction, either through a plea bargain or conviction at trial. The arbitrariness started at the charging level: nearly a third of these death-eligible cases were not charged as capital offenses as they could have been, but as lesser crimes. Sixty-six defendants were convicted of capital murder, 29 went to a hearing for a death sentence, nine death sentences were sustained and one person was executed.

Why was this small group of defendants singled out for death? Did their crimes make them more deserving of execution than all the others? (more…)

Arlington ISD turns thumbs down on Cesar Chavez holiday (yet again)

By Alan Bean

To the surprise of no one, the students of Arlington were once again denied a May holiday honoring civil rights legend Cesar Chavez. 

Last night’s meeting of the Arlington ISD school board reminded me of the climactic scene in To Kill a Mockingbird.  An all-white jury convicts the black defendant even though the case against him has crumbled to dust.  As the article below suggests, last night’s decision was a foregone conclusion.

Last year, the statements of support for a Chavez holiday, mine included, were polite and deferential.  This year was different.  

I used my five minutes to address the elephant in the room.  The school board trustees are both politicians and public servants, I said.  There is no political upside to voting to rename a generic “May holiday” in honor of Chavez.  The majority of voters in Arlington have little interest in honoring a Latino icon, and many would staunchly oppose the move.  This is, after all, one of the most conservative demographics in America. 

On the other hand, 65% of the students (and therefore a solid majority of the parents) are people of color who would love to see Chavez honored.  There is a disconnect between the political imperative to please the voters and the moral imperative to do what’s best for the children.  The heart sides with the kids; the head craves political security. (more…)

The growing campaign to end the New Jim Crow

Alan Bean and Melanie Wilmoth

Just a few nights ago, activists, former prisoners, and concerned citizens gathered at Riverside Church in New York to discuss mass incarceration and the criminal justice system. These individuals are launching a campaign built around the ideas expressed by Michelle Alexander in her book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.” Especially concerned with the effect our broken justice system has on people of color, these organizers are advocating for a complete transformation of our system of mass incarceration. MW

I met Jazz Hayden at a conference in Chicago a while back and have been following his work ever since.  Pockets of resistance to the New Jim Crow are popping up across the country and Jazz is at the forefront of this movement.  AGB

Prison Activists Work to End Racial Bias in Justice System

By Nat Rudarakanchana

On a quiet Friday evening, a band of grizzled but passionate prison activists wound its way through the corridors of Riverside Church, into a bright business-like meeting room. On the agenda this night: the launching of a campaign to end what they call the “New Jim Crow.”

The phrase refers to academic Michelle Alexander’s book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” which argues that the American criminal justice system is both unjust and racist. Several city-based activists dealing with the rights of prisoners have heard of the book: more than a few highly recommend it, too.

Among those present at this private meeting were two Harlem residents who have endured the prison system for decades and survived to tell the tale. (more…)

Pat Buchanan appears on white supremacist radio show

MSNBC commentator, Pat Buchanan, recently appeared on a white supremacist radio show to promote his new book, “Suicide of a Superpower.” In protest, the advocacy group ColorOfChange.org organized a petition, calling on MSNBC to fire Mr. Buchanan for his “long record of bigotry.”  For more details and to sign the petition, see the below message from ColorOfChange.org. MW

Did you hear about MSNBC’s white supremacist commentator?

For years, Pat Buchanan has passed off white supremacist ideology as legitimate mainstream political commentary. And MSNBC continues to pay him and give him a platform on national TV to do it.

Buchanan has just published a book which says that increasing racial diversity is a threat to this country and will mean the “End of White America.”1  This weekend, to promote his book, he went on a white supremacist radio show whose host has said things like “MLK’s dream is our nightmare,” and “interracial sex is white genocide.”2

Buchanan has the right to express his views, but he’s not entitled to a platform that lets him broadcast bigotry and hate to millions. If MSNBC wants to be seen as a trusted, mainstream source of news and commentary, it needs to fire Buchanan now.

Please join us in calling on MSNBC to fire Pat Buchanan:

http://act.colorofchange.org/sign/buchanan/

Here are a few examples of what Buchanan has said in the past: (more…)