Relentless Activist Digs into Racial Controversies
SCOTT SIMON, host:
Two of the biggest racial controversies of recent years - Tulia, Texas, and Jena, Louisiana, have one thing in common and it may not be what you expect.
NPR's Wade Goodwyn reports the key organizer behind the African-American community's activism in both towns is a mild-mannered, 54-year-old former Baptist minister who is white.
WADE GOODWYN: If you've ever wondered if the hand of fate could reach down and unexpectedly change your life forever, consider the case of Alan Bean. Bean is a Baptist minister from Canada who, for 20 years, pastor churches in Canada, Wyoming, Indiana and Kansas.
In 1998, when Bean moved to his wife's tiny hometown in Texas to be near her aging parents, he never imagined he was about to enter a whirlwind.
Mr. ALAN BEAN (Former Baptist Minister, Tulia, Texas): The idea of moving to Tulia for me was like moving to the end of the world.
GOODWYN: But Tulia, Texas, was about to change Alan Bean forever, and he was going to return the favor. In July of 1999, 46 people in Tulia - nearly all of them black - were arrested and charged with cocaine trafficking. There was no hard evidence, no video, no witnesses. The case is rested solely on the word of one undercover sheriff's deputy. The allegation that there were so many cocaine dealers in an economically depressed rural town of 5,000 people did not register as something unusual except to a few.
Mr. BEAN: My mother-in-law - when she saw the article in the paper, her initial reaction was 46 drug dealers in Tulia? Who were they selling to?
GOODWYN: The first defendant to go to trial was an African-American hog farmer named Joe Moore. Although no cocaine was ever found, Moore was sent to prison for 90 years.
Mr. BEAN: A lot of us were deeply concerned about the drug sting prior to the conviction of Joe Moore. But when Joe went down for 90 years, we were just absolutely appalled. And then when we started to look at the case, we realized, by God, this guy was almost certainly innocent.
GOODWYN: When Alan Bean says that a lot of people in Tulia were appalled, he means Tulia's black community and three white families - his, his in-laws and an old, white farmer who had employed Joe Moore as a farmhand.
Mr. BEAN: What we did was we started writing letters to the editor. And so I wrote a letter and then Charles Kiker, my father-in-law, wrote a letter approving of my letter and then Garry Gardner chipped in, approving of our letters, and it sounded almost as if we had this groundswell of opposition to what was happening in the courtroom.
GOODWYN: As an opposition tactic, it wasn't much and it fooled no one. The convictions kept coming and the judge and jury socked it to the defendants -20, 30, 40 years in prison. One man got 300 years, all on a testimony of Deputy Tom Coleman.
In despair, Bean tried to contact the outside world. He called the NAACP, the ACLU, the Amarillo Globe-News, the New York Times, the governor's office, the Justice Department. His pleas were dust in the prairie wind, so Bean gave up and tried to organize Tulia's black community, starting with the families of the 46 defendants. And that, actually, was quite a few people.
Mr. BEAN: One of the lessons that we learned in Tulia was the importance of grassroots organizing. You know, we were able to get this group of families together that was not very cohesive on its own, and we were able to get people to hang together long enough for the story to sort of become self-sustaining.
GOODWYN: Alan Bean wasn't telling Tulia's black community something it didn't already know about its relationship with local law enforcement. What Bean brought was a fresh, raw Canadian sense of outrage and perhaps even more importantly a conviction that they could actually do something about this -make the world pay attention, and improbably he turned out to be right.
Mr. BEAN: When a story is small, nobody wants to listen to you because the story is small and there's very little national impact. When a story gets sufficiently big, you reach a tipping point at which everybody gets involved.
GOODWYN: Bean's agitation finally brought the progressive news magazine, the Texas Observer, to Tulia to investigate, and holes began to appear in the deputy's narrative. One defendant had credit card and banking receipts that proved she was in Oklahoma when Tom Coleman insisted that she was in Tulia, selling him cocaine.
Eventually, New York Times columnist Bob Herbert wrote nearly a dozen op-ed pieces that spurred a high-priced East Coast lawyer to fly down and represent the defendants pro bono. And that made a big difference. In an evidentiary hearing, the sheriff's deputy's testimony collapsed, and the governor pardoned most of the defendants. In a state that prides itself on its unflinching commitment to law enforcement, it was an unlikely victory for the defense. But it was not Alan Bean's last battle.
Mr. CRAIG FRANKLIN (Assistant Editor, Jena Times): He came to Jena, did extensive interviews with the family members of the Jena Six.
GOODWYN: Craig Franklin is the assistant editor of the Jena Times and he is no fan of Alan Bean.
Mr. FRANKLIN: He actually came in anonymously, and I call it snooping around, trying to find out what he could. I believe he might be a retired minister of some kind and that was the pretense in which he came into the community.
GOODWYN: Jena, population 3,000, is the Louisiana town where three nooses were hung in the school courtyard tree after a black freshman asked if he could sit under there too. A subsequent series of racial confrontations ended with six black students charged with attempted murder after they attacked a white student who'd been melding off. Just like Tulia, all of this happened in relative anonymity until, Franklin says, Alan Bean showed up.
Mr. FRANKLIN: There wasn't any media attention or any outside groups interested in this at all at the particular time.
GOODWYN: Like a blood hound who'd gotten the scent, Alan Bean found out almost before anyone that something was happening in Jena. A lawyer in New Orleans had forwarded Bean an e-mail about nooses in a tree and black students charged with murder. It was 648 miles each way, but Bean went back and forth 12 times over a few months. Eventually, he began reaching out to news organizations and legal advocacy groups.
And even though Bean was much more widely known because of what had happened in Tulia, the response was exactly the same as before - nobody cared. So Bean wrote the story himself. Jena Times editor Craig Franklin reads Bean's opening which, if a bit overstated, was prescient nonetheless.
Mr. FRANKLIN: (Reading) The good people of little Tulia, Texas, are hitting a heavy sigh of relief; the trophy for the most racist town on America will soon be heading east. The awards ceremony is tentatively scheduled for soon after the New York Times, "60 Minutes" and other national media outlets wake up to the doings in Jena, Louisiana.
So there we have in that very opening paragraph what he intends to do with the situation in Jena, Louisiana and, in fact, what has Jena become known as the most racist town in America, which is totally untrue.
GOODWYN: Bean sent the story out to reporters but was roundly ignored. It was the BBC which finally flew across the pond to break the story. Then, a correspondent for the Chicago Tribune paid attention. It was slow at first, but just like Tulia, it was the beginning of a deluge.
Craig Franklin blames Alan Bean for what has happened to his hometown of Jena.
Mr. FRANKLIN: He was able to this by contacts who he knew would be friendly to his version of events. Because I'll be honest with you, when you first look at the situation and you say, oh, there was noose that's hung in a white tree and then we have blacks that were overly charged, that certainly makes great headlines. And it did make great headlines, but the truth of the matter is many of the things that were being reported were false.
GOODWYN: The white community in Tulia certainly knows how Franklin feels, but it actually wasn't Alan Bean who first put together the Jena narrative. It was a young African-American lawyer, a public defender named Derwyn Benton. Remember that first Jena e-mail that was forwarded to Alan Bean? That was Benton's e-mail.
Mr. DERWYN BENTON (Public Defender): We knew they were going to need good, strong legal counsel.
GOODWYN: What Benton wanted were experienced Louisiana trial lawyers willing to do a little pro bono work. What he got was Alan Bean. But Benton says that turned out much better than he expected.
Mr. BENTON: He wouldn't take no for an answer. And what he also did, he was in a way that others weren't able to - to make folks understand that if this is the sort of oppression and injustice that you think is run-off-the-mill, then shame on you. It made folks really think, god, you're right. And I think folks around these parts had become used to injustice, just being normal.
GOODWYN: Bean calls his nonprofit group Friends of Justice. It has a staff of one - Bean. He pastors no church and says, for now, this kind of work is his ministry. It is not lucrative. He received $30,000 in donations last year, most of which he spend on travel expenses. What Bean has done in Tulia, Texas, and Jena, Louisiana, is difficult to describe in grant proposals. But as the district attorneys in Tulia and Jena can testify, if some short, balding Baptist preacher shows up and begins sniffing around your prosecutions, you probably should take it seriously.
Wade Goodwyn, NPR News, Dallas.
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