"The Perfect Racial Storm," the title given to the Arkansas Times' Feb. 8, 2008, cover story following the 2007 shooting death of 12-year-old DeAunta Farrow by a West Memphis policeman, has proven to be an understated metaphor for what is transpiring in Crittenden County these days. The furor in the black community over the child's death that brought New York City activist Al Sharpton to West Memphis to preach at his funeral was nothing more than a spring rain compared to the torrent of accusations, protests and litigation that has followed in the last four years since I wrote that article.
Some of the bitterest recent public recriminations in the black community in Crittenden County have been internal as reformers publicly accuse other African Americans, including local, state and national officials, of corruption and selling out their own people. These charges have been denied and counter-charges have been made accusing the reformers of being interested only in acquiring power and publicity.
By way of contrast, this fall much of the country (outside the South at least) was held spellbound by the astonishing spectacle of two of the once least-likely contenders for the presidency imaginable — a mixed-race but self-identified African American with a suspicious name, and a member of the Mormon faith — jousting for the most powerful job in the world. In public presentations by the candidates race was not an issue. But, of course, race was an issue since literally millions of Americans, black and white, including Arkansans, voted for a candidate who looked like them.
Is race really such an issue in the Delta? Reads a caption from an article in the November 2012 issue of National Geographic about the beatings suffered by former VISTA volunteers who created Respect Inc., an umbrella organization for Arkansas civil rights groups in the late 1960s: "The Delta has something going for it: Race is always out on the table in plain view and is sometimes honestly discussed."
The operative phrase here is "sometimes honestly discussed." Even those who take offense at one more sad portrait of Arkansas's racial past cannot really be surprised at the continuing uproar. As historians of Arkansas race relations now document on a regular basis, the state's reputation was purchased by an unwavering commitment to white supremacy, implemented by slavery, murder, rape, lynching, racial massacres, segregation, massive stealing of resources intended for the black community, disfranchisement, racial cleansing, discrimination, and an official and unofficial recounting of racial history that bordered on propaganda.
Many older black citizens, particularly in the Arkansas Delta, remember white supremacy as a bare-knuckled affair well into the 1960s, no apologies expected for vigilante behavior and misconduct by white law enforcement. Indeed, as detailed in the Times' 2008 article, Crittenden County itself was a perennial poster child for the state's historical commitment to the implementation of white supremacy through peonage, lynching, outrageous disparities in educational funding and unequal justice. Articles and photographs from West Memphis and Crittenden County appeared in national publications such as Time and LIFE, chronicling some of the white South's most notorious excesses, indeed, rivaling the horror of Emmett Till's 1954 murder across the river in Money, Miss.
By 1980 the civil rights movement in Arkansas was already a trip down memory lane. Republican Winthrop Rockefeller's two terms as governor had paved the way for a more restrained and hopeful racial atmosphere within the state. Black voting, which had made the difference in both Rockefeller's elections, was taken very seriously, especially by blacks themselves. In West Memphis, of all places, where one in three persons in 1980 was African American, Leo Chitman, a black man, was elected mayor with 16 percent of the vote in a six-person race that had no provision for a run-off. Suddenly, this act was deemed undemocratic, and over the loud protests of the state NAACP, at the first opportunity the Arkansas legislature crafted a law that required majority elections (run-offs) in all county and local races. (The law has been slightly amended since.)
Fast-forward to the present era and the on-going racial conflict in Crittenden County. In retrospect, given the intent of the federal voting rights act and the history of the often successful efforts of the state of Arkansas and its subdivisions to control and/or marginalize black voting in heavily black areas, it was perhaps inevitable that the federal judiciary would intervene by sanctioning the creation of super-majority black districts of 60 percent through the process of redistricting. This crucial litigation brought by advocates in the Delta (known as the Hunt Consent Decree to lawyers) was intended to rectify vestiges of discrimination in the electoral process. Central to this story, it would ultimately result in the election of African-American Circuit Judge Victor Hill.
Today, according to the 2010 Census, the racial percentages in West Memphis have flipped. The white population in West Memphis is 33 percent. In some ways, West Memphis is like many towns in the Delta as white flight continues to take its toll on public resources. As will be seen, in one significant way it is not.
As a result of the federal redistricting litigation in the 1980s, there was a dramatic increase in the number of blacks elected to positions within Crittenden County (and elsewhere in parts of the state where significant numbers of African Americans reside, including Pulaski County). In the '60s and early '70s, black protests and boycotts in the Delta had no direct means of resulting in change. The Hunt Consent Decree litigation has changed all that. For some time there have been six blacks on the West Memphis City Council out of a total of 10 (not counting the mayor), but the levers of power are in the hands of whites. The mayor is white, and key city officials are white, as well as the vast majority of policemen and firemen.
A change in the black leadership began to emerge with the shooting death of DeAunta Farrow. Initially, African-Americans in West Memphis seemed united. A group called the Concerned Pastors and Citizens met with city officials, including police Chief Robert "Bob" Paudert in August 2007, but accomplished little of substance. The Concerned Pastors and Citizens group began to fall apart.
Though on the surface after the disintegration of the pastors' group there seemed to be no organizational challenge to the perceived abuses by the West Memphis Police Department, clearly the black community was providing a barrage of complaints to their ward representatives, James Pulliaum, Herman Coleman, Lorraine Robinson and Marco McClendon. Some of the black councilmen, responding to constituents in their wards, became irate over the continuing reports of overly aggressive tactics of the West Memphis Police Department under the leadership of Chief Paudert, who is white. Like a number of police departments throughout the country, the West Memphis police engaged in what has been termed pro-active police measures.
Paudert announced in August 2009, two years after Farrow's death, that, after consulting with the mayor, the West Memphis police would have different enforcement policies for the east and west neighborhoods in the city. "Starting today ... we will be a reactive police force in the east sections of the city. They don't want us in their community." Paudert said, "For my police officers and this department, it is not a black/white thing, its [sic] about people. The fact is, most crime is committed in the black community. We risk our lives going into those communities to protect them. Then they complain about us." He said that the complaints were affecting the department. "It is hard on our officers. We are losing them. We lost two today to Memphis. We are demoralized by the action of our employers." He called for public support of the police.
Councilman Pulliaum, who worked for 15 years as a patrolman and jailer for the Crittenden County Sheriff's office, was an early supporter of Paudert and is still sympathetic to the principle of "active" policing. In a recent interview, he added, however, that in order for this technique to work, law enforcement has to know the community and earn its trust.
Pulliaum, who has represented Ward Two on the City Council for 17 years, said that after taking the job as chief of police in West Memphis, Paudert seemed to change overnight. Black officers in senior positions began to leave the WMPD or were fired.
An article in the Evening Times newspaper quoted Councilwoman Lorraine Robinson as saying that her constituents were "outraged" by Paudert's decision to treat the east side of West Memphis differently. White council member Tracy Catt, who represents Ward One, also told the the Times that "every portion of this city deserves to have police presence." On Aug. 31, 10 days after changing the policy, Chief Paudert announced that the police department was resuming active policing on the east side of town. Controversy would remain, however, over the actions of the West Memphis Police Department.
Some in the black community decided that it was worth trying to reform an organization that had a long tradition in Crittenden County: The NAACP.
In 2004, three years before Farrow's death, a challenge had been made to the leadership of Willie Catha-Jones, who had served as president of the Crittenden County NAACP since 1994. Hubert Bass, now a Crittenden County justice of the peace, agreed to run against Catha-Jones, but before the vote took place, Dale Charles, president of the Arkansas Conference of Branches of the NAACP, drove from Little Rock to West Memphis and postponed the election. Catha-Jones was re-elected the following week.
Efforts by the reformers to change the leadership of the Crittenden County NAACP got in high gear in 2010. The reformers were led by Hubert Bass; Shabaka Afrika, owner of Afrika Books and Cultural Center, and Lawrence Brown. Brown, 33, with a doctorate in health and public policy from the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis and a postdoctoral fellowship from the Kellogg Foundation at Morgan State University in Baltimore, was uniquely qualified for the role. Like a number of African-American leaders, he is also a preacher and served briefly as a temporary pastor at the Second Congregational United Church of Christ in Memphis.
In March 2010, in a single-spaced five-page letter, Brown wrote the national offices of the NAACP in Baltimore, setting out in detail specific allegations and violations of the organization's policy in four areas: (1) the use of West Memphis police to intimidate NAACP members opposed to Catha-Jones' leadership; (2) the failure of Catha-Jones to support efforts of the black community to protest the actions of the West Memphis Police Department; (3) the failure of the leadership to conduct official business meetings from December 2009 to April 2010, and (4) the failure of Catha-Jones to provide him with requested records of the Crittenden County NAACP during her tenure to determine the fiscal condition of the branch. Brown warned of litigation if these matters were not addressed.
On May 8, 2010, 20 members of the Crittenden County NAACP signed their names to a letter requesting a meeting with Catha-Jones, who responded by letter that the chapter must follow "protocol" and that such a meeting would be out of order.
Catha-Jones' actions satisfied neither the members of the reform group nor some black members of the City Council. Catha-Jones had a history with the City Council: According to the Evening Times, in 2009 she had "come under criticism from several [black] council members for intervening in city affairs." Councilman Coleman said that a press conference held by Paudert with her sitting next to him "was an example of the police chief getting Jones to say whatever they wanted [Jones] to say." Other members questioned her authority. "Council members also voiced displeasure when it was announced that Catha-Jones was notified of [the hiring of] a temporary internal affairs director at the police department before the council was told of the change." Her response was that the community had to work with the police.
Neither the national or state office of the NAACP took steps to address the complaints of the reformers. So the decision was made to challenge Catha-Jones directly by contesting the next election of officers, to be held on Nov. 15, 2010. The reformers, including Brown, gained control of the election machinery by electing one of their group, Bass, as supervisor of the Election Supervisory Committee of the Crittenden County NAACP. The election would prove to be a rowdy affair. When, as expected, Dale Charles came from Little Rock to "supervise" the election at the Neighborhood Center on East Polk Avenue in West Memphis, he was removed from the premises. Reformer Shabaka Afrika was elected president.
Bass filed a lawsuit on Dec. 30, 2010, in Crittenden County Circuit Court to require Catha-Jones to accept her defeat and turn over all property of the organization to Afrika and arguing that Charles had no authority to intervene.
After a hearing on Feb. 2, 2011, Judge Hill found that the new election was valid and that the old officers had "failed to follow proper procedures to contest [the] election." Catha-Jones was ordered to turn over property of the NAACP in her possession to new president Afrika. Apparently following the advice of the state and national offices of the NAACP, Catha-Jones refused to comply with the court's orders.
On March 8, 2011, Hill found Catha-Jones to be in "willful contempt of this court's orders" and ordered her confined to jail "for 30 days, or until such time as she complies with the orders of this court." She would spend three days in jail. Her non-compliance cost the national office a total of around $5,000, depending on how one figures it.
In an order dated March 31, 2011, Hill further detailed his reasons for his detention of Catha-Jones, stating in part, that the evidence had showed that "Charles had no other business in Crittenden County that evening than to impress his will upon the members of the Crittenden County NAACP, and to usurp the election in favor of his friend, Catha-Jones. The deputies acted properly in escorting him from the premises. These officers should be commended for the restraint they displayed when confronted with a man described as 'irate' and 'irrational' by the witnesses who were present that evening and who testified at the Feb. 2 hearing."
Hill's order noted that a letter from "outside persons" (officials from the national and state offices of the NAACP) did not constitute authority to interfere with his jurisdiction and nothing would until he either changed his order or was overruled. The judge had thrown down the gauntlet to the state and national offices of the NAACP.
On Oct. 26, 2011, Roger C. Vann, CEO of the national NAACP, wrote members that the board of directors had voted to "suspend the charter of the Crittenden County Branch pursuant to Article XI of the Bylaws ..."
Van said, "The National Office has been forwarded several inappropriate communications published in the local newspaper which misrepresented how the NAACP does its work in the community. This abuse was clearly a misuse of the NAACP brand and trademark which has precipitated the action now being taken. Our hope is that in the future we can reactivate the branch."
Since then, the national NAACP has formally intervened in the case and contends that Hill did not have jurisdiction to enter any orders. As of Nov. 7, no final hearing had been scheduled. What had started as a protest against alleged police misconduct would become a much broader campaign against what the reformers saw as corruption on a number of fronts. Given their prior experience with Dale Charles in the 2004 Crittenden County NAACP election, clearly the reformers had taken care to insure that a new election would have different results. A cynic might conclude that with Charles out of the way, Africa's election could hardly have been fair. Attempts to reach Charles and Catha-Jones for comment for this story were unsuccessful.
Besides the judge's ruling, however, evidence that it was an honest and fair election comes from a participant who, in light of his subsequent actions, can only be described an as impartial observer. In his recent interview, James Pulliaum says he knows it was a fair election because he helped count the votes; he'd been asked by Hubert Bass for help.
Afrika was also a candidate for the city council election Nov. 6. Though he remains a member of the Crittenden County NAACP, Pulliaum did not support Afrika for the city council. He acknowledged he voted for Afrika for president of the NAACP, but says that he has only attended one or two meetings during the time Catha-Jones or Afrika has been president. In his opinion, neither individual reached out to the membership. Pulliaum made no secret that he was a supporter of one of Afrika's opponents in the city council election. The council needs young people, he said.
The reformers condemn in the harshest terms the electoral corruption that exists in the Crittenden County black community. The Evening Times regularly chronicles allegations and convictions of electoral fraud. As merely one example, a special election in 2011 for the vacated House District 54 seat that covers much of Crittenden County has resulted in convictions in federal court for a conspiracy that involved payoffs and other abuses involving absentee ballots. Pleading guilty were the winner, Hudson Hallum, and his father, Kent Hallum, West Memphis City Councilman Phillip Carter and Sam Malone, who was serving as a West Memphis police officer, quorum court justice and West Memphis School Board member. Five other charges in state court arising out of the investigation have been filed against Crittenden County Quorum Court and Earle School Board member Eric Cox, fellow JP Lorenzo Parker, who is the West Memphis Parks and Recreation director, and three other defendants: Leroy Grant, Amos Sanders and Lisa Burns.
All but two of the defendants in the 2011 special-election scandal are black. On Sept. 9, 2012, the Evening Times reported that "The Hallums, Carter and Malone admitted that some ballots voting for Hallum's opponents were destroyed and also admitted that votes were purchased for such items as chicken dinners and they sought out discounts on half-pints of vodka to help out the campaign."
The reformers have become increasingly vocal in their denunciation of their opponents, which now include the city's white power structure, allegedly corrupt Crittenden County blacks, allegedly do-nothing black elected officials in city and county government, and the state and national NAACP. In an e-mail dated Sept. 28, 2011 to the Crittenden County NAACP members, Afrika wrote, in part, "We have all these Afrikan[sic]-American officials ... Most of these "negroes [sic] are bought, paid-for, rented, leased, borrowed, sold-out, and or simply foolish."
Pointing out the tiny percentage of blacks in West Memphis who work for the city, he called on the members to "do simple research. Find out how your leaders make a living. Who do they work for? Who are they contracted through or by? Who are their spouses and family members employed by? Do they represent you or their employers and bosses? They may be your friend, fraternity brother, or even your pastor, but whose interests do they really serve? As responsible adults and particularly black people whose entire reality has been shaped by systematic injustice for generations, we have a moral responsibility to do so ..."
On Facebook at ourview.naacp, the rhetoric of the reformers is even harsher — inflammatory and racist, says the Evening Times. Interviewed for this article, managing editor Gary Meece said in an e-mail that Afrika "is not a spokesman for the black community, though he styles himself as such. ... [he] is a troublemaker and a publicity hound but that does not make him newsworthy. He and his chapter were bounced out of the NAACP for his racist rhetoric." He has also said that Afrika has libeled him and members of his staff, and individuals are considering legal action. Afrika, who also ran and was defeated for a position on the West Memphis School Board, responded to Meece's charges by saying that he is a "liar." He acknowledged that questions have been raised about whether he is actually a legal resident in the second ward. He has a home in Marion but his business, Afrika Books and Cultural Center, is located in Ward Two in West Memphis. No "Johnny come lately" to the civil rights struggle in West Memphis, he says that he and his wife were two of the plaintiffs who brought the redistricting litigation.
Whatever the final outcome of the litigation in Judge Hill's Court, Afrika's leadership has become a bone of contention in the black community. In an interview on Nov. 2 with him, Hubert Bass and Lawrence Brown, who acted as Afrika's campaign manager during the recent Ward two election, it was acknowledged that none of the black city councilmen supported Afrika's council candidacy. On Nov. 6, Afrika received 611 votes, finishing third in a three-person race for a seat on the council against two other black candidates.
In his recent e-mail, the Times' Meece said that "generally individuals of all races get along well here ... there is some residual racial resentment ... No doubt there are incidents of mutual distrust ... ."
So long as the subject of race is avoided in West Memphis, a recent and very short visit suggests support for the view that at least in public "all races get along well here." On the other hand, an outsider would be hard-pressed to dismiss an e-mail from Crittenden County Election Commissioner Pat Henderson, who described meetings of the Crittenden County Democratic Party as events where "everyone consistently sits with all the whites on one side and all the blacks on the other side. If there are disagreements that require a vote, all the whites vote together, and all the blacks vote together."
Henderson, who is black, had been quoted in an Evening Times article earlier in the year as saying, "There is already a divide, not only on this [Democratic] committee, but in the whole county. ... We've got to come together."
Though Bob Paudert has moved on from the West Memphis Police Department, the reformers are not satisfied. They have a litany of complaints ranging from brutal, illegal searches to the reckless behavior of police that resulted in the wrongful deaths of six people, three black and three white. According to James Pulliaum, the new chief, Donald Oakes, has made improvements.
At the end of the day in Crittenden County, what constitutes an honest discussion about race seems to be in the eye of the beholder.
Grif Stockley is the author of "Ruled by Race: Black/White Relations in Arkansas from Slavery to the Present" published in 2008 by the University of Arkansas Press. He is completing a book about the 1959 fire at the Negro Boys Industrial School.