Category: Racial reconciliation

Bringing Justice to Winona, Mississippi


This post was written in the immediate aftermath of the 2010 conviction of Curtis Flowers in a Winona, Mississippi courtroom.  Now that the justices of the Mississippi Supreme Court are considering how to respond to this unprecedented case, a re-examination of the basic issues is in order.  Who is Curtis Flowers, and why has he been tried six times on the same facts without a final conviction?

(Additional Information on the Flowers case can be found here.)

Bringing Justice to Winona Mississippi

Alan Bean, Friends of Justice

In June of 2010, a forty-year-old black man was convicted of killing four people in cold blood and sentenced to die by lethal injection.  His name is Curtis Flowers.

Stories of black men sentenced through a perversion of justice cram the in boxes of CNN, NPR, the New York Times and the like on a daily basis.  It is a quintessentially America story, but it is also without parallel.

Curtis Flowers is the only capital defendant in American history to be tried six times on the same evidence.  The first three convictions were overturned due to prosecutorial misconduct; in the fourth, five black jurors held out for acquittal.  Trial five also ended in a hung jury, with the single black juror who refused to side with the majority accused of perjury. The sixth trial yielded the sentence of death and is now before the Mississippi Supreme Court. (more…)

Law and Order Cancelled

My wife, Nancy, has long been a big fan of the original Law and Order, the 20-year-old NBC drama that was cancelled today.

Personally, I’ve always had mixed emotions.  The pristine professional ethics of the L&O prosecutors set a high standard for real-world DA’s, but I haven’t seen that much moral hand-wringing from folks like Terry McEachern (Tulia), Brett Grayson (Lafayette), Reed Walters (Jena), or Doug Evans (Winona) that I have encountered over the past decade. 

Naturally, the mission of Friends of Justice brings us into contact with the worst offenders . . . but still.

Law and Order almost always featured wealthy, socially prominent, white perps.  If this was a realistic portrayal of life in your typical DAs office the prisons would be crammed with rich white guys.  Sadly, the folks under suspicion on Law and Order rarely experience the tender ministrations of the criminal justice system.  (more…)

Vengeance in the courtroom

Stanley Fish is a law professor who writes a column for the New York Times.  In his latest offering, Fish describes the revenge-vengeance film genre.  According to Fish, Iam Neeson’s lines from “Taken” summarize the plotline we have come to expect from this sort of film:

“If you’re looking for ransom, I don’t have any money. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills, skills I have acquired over a very long career, skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you let my daughter go now, that will be the end of it I will not look for you, I will not pursue you. But if you don’t, I will look for you. I will find you. And I will kill you.” 

According to Dr. Fish, “The formula’s popularity stems from the permission it gives viewers to experience the rush violence provides without feeling guilty about it. The plot gives the hero the same permission when a wife or daughter or brother or girlfriend . . . is abducted, injured or killed.”

The revenge-vengeance only works, of course, if the carnage depicted on-screen is a response to some despicable act perpetrated by a genuinely nasty villain or, better yet, group of villains.  “Once the atrocity has occurred,” Fish says, “the hero acquires an unquestioned justification for whatever he or she then does; and as the hero’s proxy, the audience enjoys the same justification for vicariously participating in murder, mayhem and mutilation. In fact, the audience is really the main character in many of these films. You can almost see the director calculating the point at which identification with the hero or heroine will be so great that the desire to see vengeance done will overwhelm any moral qualms viewers might otherwise have.” (more…)

Orlando Patterson’s quiet revolution

Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson makes two major claims in this stimulating op-ed piece in the New York Times. First, he suggests that racism has changed its shape without losing its power.  This means that a black president must never address the race issue directly.

Patterson understands the historical roots of American racism as well as any living American scholar.  Here’s his mini-lecture on the subject:

We became this way because of the peculiar tragedies and triumphs of our past. Race and racism scar all advanced nations, but America is peculiar because slavery thrived internally and race became a defining feature of personal identity.

Slavery was quintessentially an institution of exclusion: the slave first and foremost was someone who did not belong to and had no claims on the public order, nor any legitimate private existence, since both were appropriated by the slaveholder. The Act of Emancipation abolished only the first part of slavery, the master’s ownership; far from removing the concept of the ex-slave as someone who did not belong, it reinforced it. The nightmare of the Jim Crow era then extended and reinforced the public slavery of black Americans right up through the middle of the 20th century.

At the same time, the status of blacks as permanent outsiders made whiteness a treasured personal attribute in a manner inconceivable to Europeans. Whiteness had no real meaning to pre-immigration Swedes or Irishmen because they were all white. But it became meaningful the moment they landed in America, where it was eagerly embraced as a free cultural resource in assimilating to the white republic. In America race had the same significance as gender and age as defining qualities of personhood.

The civil rights movement opened up new opportunities for educated people of color by abolishing “the lingering public culture of slavery”, but while black people have made great strides in the entertainment, athletic and political fields, the social segregation in America has actually deepened.  African Americans are still perceived to be “culturally different”, Patterson writes, and “In the disciplined cultural spaces of marriages, homes, neighborhoods, schools and churches, these same differences become the source of Apollonian dread.”

Social isolation means that white Americans have a hard time grasping the individuality of black Americans.  As a result, the pathologies of the few are attributed to the many.  Although the relationship between social pathology and bad public policy is simply assumed in the academic community, a black president must never appear to be making excuses for absentee dads and street-hardened thugs if he wants white votes.

I’m not sure if Patterson is trying to describe the president’s thinking in this op-ed, or if he is telling Obama how he ought to think.  Maybe he’s doing both.  Obama, Patterson suggests, must never lecture white America about race.  In the wake of the Jeremiah Wright controversy, Obama had to speak out to keep the race issue from derailing his candidacy.  But since entering the White House, he has made only one foray into racial politics (his remarks about the Gates-Crowley affair) and Patterson sees that as an unmitigated disaster. 

Therefore, the professor says, America’s first black president “will not be leading any national conversations on race, convinced as he must be that they exacerbate rather than illuminate.” 

Patterson seems to agree with this stark assessment.

Are white Americans so ignorant and reflexively defensive that they can’t engage in an intelligent give-and-take on the subject of race?

So progressive analysts seem to believe.  So it has always been.  The NAACP was horrified by Martin Luther King’s practice of non-violent direct action because the strategy invited a violent white backlash.  King persisted because he knew the sheer pathology of the typical white reaction to marches, buoycotts and sit-ins exposed the irrational hatred at the heart of racist public policy. 

Similarly, the Freedom Rides of 1961 received negative reviews from the mainstream press.  It was generally assumed that anyone foolish enough to sit in the front section of a bus in Alabama or Mississippi had only themselves to blame if they received a brutal beating.  But every Freedom Rider sent from Jackson to the notorious Parchman prison in the Mississippi Delta weakened the position of Southern politicians.  Ultimately, Attorney General Bobby Kennedy pressured the Interstate Commerce Commission into changing the law.

Only after non-violent and inter-racial strategies were abandoned did a conservative backlash against civil rights take hold in America.   For an entire decade, the conflict between civil rights and states rights shaped the way Americans thought about the past and the present.  The living narratives unleashed by non-violent direct action seized white America by the throat.  The strategy was daring, dangerous and uniquely effective.  Civil rights activists created a social crisis in America and waited for the truth to surface.

The narrative strategy Friends of Justice employs is rooted in the early civil rights movement.  By taking hold of the narrative surrounding actual criminal cases we spark an intense conversation about race and justice.  Initially, public officials ignore us.  When that doesn’t work they attempt try to spin the story in their own favor.  In the resulting clash of narratives the truth ultimately rises to the surface.  Not everybody sees it, of course.  Some folks remain convinced that Tom Coleman made good cases in Tulia or that the nooses hanging from a tree in Jena held no racial significance.  But Jena changed the way school administrators think across America, Tulia led to widespread reforms and the Colomb case (though it gained less publicity than Jena and Tulia) exposed fundamental flaws in federal conspiracy law

Orlando Patterson hopes Barack Obama can “quietly” reform the criminal justice system.  Not by himself, he can’t.  Our punitive justice system was shaped by tough-on-crime politicians exploiting and feeding public fears at the top of their lungs.  There was nothing subtle or “quiet” about this process.  Divisive and damaging narratives about crack babies and inner city thugs built the present system and only healing justice narratives can take it apart.  

Conservative politicians could afford to be speak loudly because they reflected the zeitgeist.  White people were angry, afraid and in the majority.  Progressive leaders must wait for somebody else to change the tenor of the conversation, but if everyone is quiet nothing will change.

White skin is no barrier to reflection and repentance.  Given the right environment, all people can learn.  But there will be nothing quiet about the process.  “You shall know the truth,” Jesus tells us, “and the truth shall set you free.”  Politically nuanced fudge phrases are good for winning elections but they will never reveal truth or expose lies. 

Orlando Patterson is right about one thing: a sitting president can’t be the standard-bearer for a twenty-first century civil rights movement.  Barack Obama shouldn’t take the lead in the conversation about race and justice–but he has already changed the context in which that conversation unfolds.  It’s up to the rest of us to speak the loud truth without apology.

Jena 6 students get some positive publicity

P6264495Jesse Ray (Jody) Beard, best known as the youngest member of the Jena 6, is finishing High School at a private boarding school in Connecticut.  CNN recently interviewed Jesse Ray and Alan Howard, the NY attorney who has taken the young man under his wing.  You can find the text version of the story here.  I had the privilege of getting to know Mr. Howard during my last trip to Jena (in the picture at the left, he and attorney David Utter chat with Jesse Ray) and was moved by the depth of his commitment. 

Also, the newspaper in Monroe, Louisiana did a story about Robert Bailey, Jr., another Jena 6 student who will be entering Grambling University in the fall.  Robert took a couple of summer school classes at Grambling this summer and earned a 4.0 average.  The story is unavailable online but the text is pasted below. The picture at the beginning of the article shows Robert lifting weights in June of 2009.

As the story suggests, the Bailey family has a long tradition at Grambling.   The second picture I have inserted into the news story features Robert’s grandmother during her Grambling days.  Elegant, don’t you think?  At the very end, the educational plans of all six young men are noted briefly. 

I hope Justin Barker, the victim of the December 4th, 2007 assault at Jena High, is also looking at a bright future.  Friends of Justice got involved in Jena not to pick sides but to bring some redemption to a tragic situation.  Are we better off with these young men attending college classes or locked up in a state prison? 


July 19, 2009

Former Jena Six student hopes to overcome past, look to future

By Stephen Largen

GRAMBLING — What might have sucked most people into a downward spiral only seems to have made Robert Bailey Jr. more determined to turn his life around.

Bailey, 19, is one of the Jena Six — six black Jena High School students initially charged with attempted murder in connection with a Dec. 4, 2006, assault on white student Justin Barker at the LaSalle Parish school.

The controversial case drew attention across the nation after many called the arrests and subsequent charges racially discriminatory and excessive. A massive civil rights demonstration ensued on Sept. 20, 2007, when at least 20,000 people marched through Jena to protest.

Bailey wrapped up his legal issues late last month when, along with Carwin Jones, Jesse Ray Beard, Bryant Purvis and Theo Shaw, he pleaded no contest in a Jena courtroom to misdemeanor simple battery. Bailey and the others were sentenced to seven days of unsupervised probation and a $500 fine, but were given no jail time.

They also reached a confidential settlement out of court with Barker.

The only member of the group to serve time was Mychal Bell, who pleaded guilty in December 2007 to second-degree battery and was sentenced to 18 months.

Now, after graduating in May from Shaw High School in Columbus, Ga., Bailey is taking summer classes at Grambling State University, where he plans to major in marketing. Bailey also will attempt to walk onto the football team as a wide receiver.

P6264434For Bailey, GSU was a natural choice. His grandmother, mother and several aunts went to the historically black college.

“That’s all I hear is Grambling,” Bailey said.

“In my house it was Grambling this, Grambling that — especially during football season.”

Bailey’s mother, Caseptla Bailey, who lives in Jena, is happy with her son’s decision to study at her alma mater.

“I’m very pleased with him,” Caseptla Bailey said. “I think something positive came out of all this. I think it was good he moved and got away from Jena. People here are still talking about the case. I still feel that people hold a grudge.”

Can’t go back

Robert Bailey said he has only been back to Jena for a total of three or four days since the controversy exploded.

He said he’s made the choice to keep a low profile.

“When people ask me where I’m from, I don’t like to say Jena,” Bailey said.

“People say ‘You know that’s going to stick with you for the rest of your life, right?’ I’m like, ‘For real?’ And I think about it, like, ,you’re gonna be 40 years old and people are going to look at you like you’re that Jena Six boy. I think it is going to stay with me, but it depends how you look at it. I just choose not to suck myself back into that environment where I know I’m going to get the finger pointed at me. I just choose to stay away.”

Bailey also chose to stay out of the spotlight at Shaw, where he enrolled in January 2008 and stayed with family after being kicked out of Jena High.

For his first six months at the school, Bailey didn’t even use his own name.

Instead, he went by the pseudonym “Xavier Lee,” until a local media outlet identified him as a member of the Jena Six.

“The media found out I was in Columbus,” Bailey said.

“I had people coming to me like, ‘Dang, that’s one of them boys. You seen one of those Jena Six boys?’ I was like, ‘Nah, I ain’t seen him,'” Bailey said with a laugh. “I keep to myself, I try to stay to my own business.”

Bailey was granted a final year of athletic eligibility by the Georgia High School Association.

He used that year to help lead the football team to the state playoffs.

“We did pretty good,” Bailey said.

“We made it to the state playoffs. I had 23 catches, 350 yards, four touchdowns.”

Bailey drew scholarship interest from several Division II teams but chose GSU instead.

“I just chose to come to Grambling just off of love. I want to be here,” he said.

Grambling’s alumni association has pitched in to make Bailey feel welcome.

One of the chapters has given him a textbook scholarship for his freshman year.

Bailey said he’s looking forward to catching footballs in the fall.

“I don’t plan on watching,” he said.

“I plan on being out there on the field.”

But Bailey doesn’t believe his future lies with athletics.

He plans to go law school after graduating from GSU.

“People always told me I was good at debating,” he said.

‘No choice but to succeed.’

Baton Rouge attorney Jim Boren, who served as Bailey’s lawyer, said his client has seized the opportunity to change his life.

“Robert has overcome it,” Boren said.

“He didn’t continue in a downward spiral. He picked himself up. He picked up his books and made a success of himself, and it’s just the beginning.”

Boren said Bailey is not the only member of the Jena Six to successfully move past the case.

“All the kids have left Jena and excelled,” he said.

“They haven’t gotten into any serious trouble. We’re all very proud of what they’ve done since then.”

Bailey said he still talks to all the other members of the group, and they encourage and motivate each other.

“Everybody’s started a new life,” he said.

“Everybody knows we got a second chance, and we know what we have to do. We’re grown now. You’re gonna have to be up at night studying for that final the next day. It’s what we’ve got to do. Work hard for your position in sports or whatever you choose to do.”

Bailey said the support he’s received throughout the world motivated him to continue on to GSU.

“I ain’t got no choice but to succeed in life,” he said.

“I can’t be on that negative end because I look at all the people that helped me out. They’re gonna be like, ‘Dang, we marched for nothing.'”

Additional Facts

jena six “” Where are they now?

¢ Robert Bailey Jr. is enrolled at Grambling State University and will attempt to walk on to the football team.

¢ Mychal Bell is enrolled at Southern University and will attempt to walk on to the football team.

¢ Jesse Ray Beard is finishing high school in Connecticut.

¢ Carwin Jones is planning to go to college in Texas starting in August.

¢ Bryant Purvis is enrolled at a community college in Texas and plays on the basketball team.

¢ Theo Shaw is enrolled at Louisiana Delta Community College in Monroe and was elected vice president of the school’s student government association for the 2009-2010 school year.

Former Jena 6 student Robert Bailey Jr. is taking classes at GSU and will try to make the football team in the fall.

Fear, race and pride


A New York Times piece picks up on a question Scott Henson introduced on his blog: what does the behavior of Sgt. Crowley of the Cambridge PD say about police culture?

Not surprisingly, there is little consensus among police officers on the thick-skin vs. zero tolerance question.

An LAPD officer is unimpressed with Crowley’s approach. “Whether we’re giving them a ticket or responding to some conflict between a husband and wife, we’re not dealing with people at their best, and if you don’t have a tough skin, then you shouldn’t be a cop.”

A New York detective disagrees.  “We pay these officers to risk their lives every day.  We’re taught that officers should have a thicker skin and be a little immune to some comments. But not to the point where you are abused in public. You don’t get paid to be publicly abused. There are laws that protect against that.”

Have you noticed that officer Crowley’s police report is generally embraced by the media as gospel truth while  Professor Gates’ version of the story is rarely mentioned?  The Harvard professor says he repeatedly asked officer Crowley for his name and badge number, a clear indication that a formal complaint was in the offing.  Crowley, Gates says, refused to comply. 

The adversarial dynamic between the two men was fueled by fear, race and male ego.  (more…)

A nice girl like you . . .

(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.)

Lydia Chassaniol is in trouble.  How much trouble remains to be seen, but the Mississippi State Senator (R-Winona) has the regional blogosphere in an uproar.

Remember the mid-to-late 1990s when prominent Mississippi politicians like Bob Barr and Trent Lott got too cozy with the Council of Conservative Citizens?  That’s the white separatist hate group the New York Times describes as having “a thinly-veiled white supremacist agenda”.  You can buy a “white pride” T-shirt on the CCC website and read headlines like: “The whole world treats Obama as a joke!” and “Mass immigration equals white genocide.”

The CCC platform praises America’s “European” heritage and condemns “mixture of the races”.   CCC leaders still like to refer to “Martin Looter Coon” and have described African Americans as “a retrograde species of humanity”.  According to Ward Schaefer of the Jackson Free Press, “Columnists in the CofCC’s newsletter have hyperventilated that non-white immigration to the U.S. was transforming the country into a ‘slimy brown mass of glop.'”

You get the picture. (more…)

Teaching our racial history

Leonard Pitts uses a tragic story from Sarasota, FL to decry the growing influence of Neo-Confederate propaganda.  With commendable sensitivity, Pitts sifts through a story reminiscent of Jena.  There are no heroes and villains in this story, just victims.

Here’s the key insight: “If we were a people with the courage to teach our racial history fearlessly, and the foresight to inculcate in our children a reverence for civil liberties, this tragedy might never have happened.”

Grievance and rage combustible


A few days ago, a high school student in Sarasota failed history and another failed civics. As a result, the one wound up shot in the chest and the other jailed on a charge of aggravated battery with a deadly weapon.

Here’s the story, as reported by The Sarasota Herald Tribune: On the last Friday in April, an 18-year-old white kid named Daniel Azeff and a friend went riding downtown in a pickup truck, yelling racially disparaging remarks and waving a Confederate battle flag. Azeff’s grandfather, Joseph Fischer, told the paper he has cautioned his grandson repeatedly about his fascination with that dirty banner. Azeff, he said, does not really understand what the flag means.

If so, he’s hardly alone in his ignorance. A generation of apologists for the wannabe nation symbolized by that flag has done an effective job of convincing the gullible and the willfully ignorant that neither the nation, the flag, nor the Civil War in which both were bloodily repudiated, has anything to do with slavery. It’s just ”heritage,” they say, as though heritage were a synonym for ”good.” As though Nazis, white South Africans and Rwandans did not have heritage, too.

For the record: In explaining its decision to secede, South Carolina cited ”an increasing hostility on the part of the non-slaveholding States to the institution of slavery.” Georgia noted its grievances against the North ”with reference to the subject of African slavery.” Mississippi said, ”Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery.” To which Confederate ”vice president” Alexander Stephens added: “Our new government is founded upon . . . the great truth that the Negro is not equal to the white man, that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition.”

So the notion that the Confederacy and its symbols have nothing to with slavery is tiresome, silly and delusional. In choosing to adopt one of those symbols that night, David Azeff took a history test of sorts — and failed.

As noted, Michael Mitchell’s test was in civics. Police say Mitchell, who is 18, black and a student at Sarasota Military Academy, saw Azeff’s flag, took offense and, when the white kid parked and walked down the street, confronted him. Azeff denied being a racist; he was, he said, just exercising his First Amendment rights. Police say the argument escalated, until Mitchell pulled a gun and shot Azeff in the chest.

Thus did Mitchell fail his own test. This is America. Daniel Azeff has a perfect right to express virtually any opinion he chooses, no matter how asinine or provocative, without being shot for it.

Thankfully, Azeff is expected to make a full recovery. Meantime, Mitchell, said to be a good kid who has never been in trouble before, remains jailed in lieu of $50,000 bail. It is difficult not to see a certain symmetry.

That’s not an argument of moral equivalence: Mitchell allegedly pulled a gun, so the moral weight for what happened rests squarely upon his shoulders.

And yet it’s also true that each teenager had what the other lacked. One knew his rights, the other, his history. But neither realized that you cannot fully appreciate the one without understanding the other. So each young man fell into the other’s blind spot.

If we were a people with the courage to teach our racial history fearlessly, and the foresight to inculcate in our children a reverence for civil liberties, this tragedy might never have happened. We are not those people. And because we aren’t, these two boys hurtled toward collision, hopped up on grievances and rage they were ill-equipped to speak — or hear. They took a test that night in Sarasota, and let no one be surprised they failed.

They never had a chance.