Challenging Jim Crow justice


By: Alan Bean

Alan Bean of the Texas-based civil rights organization Friends of Justice will be the keynote speaker at the Campaign to End the Death Penalty’s annual convention this November. 

Alan has worked to advocate for justice in the Tulia, Texas, drug scandal, in which 46 people were wrongfully convicted, and to bring national attention to the case of the Jena Six. Presently, he is working on the Curtis Flowers case. Curtis has been on death row in Mississippi for over 13 years and has faced six different trials—more times than anyone in the U.S. has ever been tried. 

Here, Alan gives us an overview of the important work his group is involved in. You can come and hear Alan speak by attending this year’s convention! To register, or for more information, go to the CEDP Web site at nodeathpenalty.org.

Friends of Justice formed in response to the infamous Tulia drug sting of 1999, in which 16 percent of the town’s African American population was indicted on the false testimony of a white undercover agent. We were the first organization to investigate a 2007 controversy in Jena, La., where the hanging of nooses in a public school led to escalating racial conflict among high school students. 

We are currently building media and advocacy interest around the case of Curtis Flowers, a Mississippi native convicted on the basis of bribed testimony. Mr. Flowers is the only man in American legal history to be tried six times on the same evidence.

Strategically headquartered in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, Friends of Justice works in small towns in Texas and the South where a tough-on-crime consensus reigns unopposed. We are particularly interested in communities where the de jure oppression of the Jim Crow period evolved into the de facto regime of racial oppression currently on display in America’s courts, prisons and poverty-infested neighborhoods.

Friends of Justice is a faith-based organization with a “common peace” agenda. We believe that love and justice lie at the heart of God’s character. Divided by age, gender, race and religion, we are one in the grace of God. From a religious perspective, criminal-justice policies shaped by fear and bloodlust are a form of sacrilege. Our primary goal is the restoration of a common peace consensus in America.

Between the mid 1930s and the mid-1960s, a common peace consensus reconfigured American public policy. This consensus was a product of the union movement, the impact of the social gospel and the ecumenical movement on protestant mainline denominations and, of course, New Deal politics. After the Second World War, as the civil rights movement hit its stride, the common peace consensus was gradually extended to African Americans. The emphasis was on practical solutions to human misery and the quest for unity in the midst of diversity.

Increasingly, criminals were viewed as troubled citizens in need of opportunity and redirection. This period of common peace consensus was strongest in the northeastern states, but its influence was felt even in the Deep South. The common peace era was marked by falling crime and homicide rates. In 1966, a majority of Americans opposed the death penalty, and not a single person was executed in the United States. This common peace consensus was reinforced by religious vision rooted in love and justice.

In the late 1960s, the common peace consensus collapsed. Soaring crime and homicide rates were partly to blame. Criminals were viewed as heartless predators, tough-on-crime politics lured southern Democrats into the Republican fold, neoliberal economic policies transformed unskilled workers into a surplus population, the death penalty was back with a vengeance, and the national prison system was growing at a cancerous rate.

The criminal justice reform movement was bereft of mainstream support. No one in public life, politicians in particular, dared oppose punitive crime bills or the death penalty. Across America, a religion of law and punishment was ascendant.

Fearing the tough-on-crime consensus was too powerful to confront head-on, realists in the reform movement settled for incremental legal and legislative reforms. Radicals refused to compromise. Taking a stand on principle, they railed against a punitive culture from which they were increasingly alienated.

Both realists and radicals own a piece of the truth. Until we change the national consensus, real reform is not possible. The narrative strategy Friends of Justice uses is designed to shift perception. We do this by injecting common peace values into a retributive system, inviting America to view a particular case through an alternative lens.

First, we strategize collaboratively with a local leadership team, leveraging local knowledge and grounding the campaign in the concerns and values of the affected community. We investigate the story behind this case, recruit national media, use our blog to provide big-picture context and build a national coalition of advocacy groups around the case. We communicate freely with the media in ways that defense attorneys, constrained by ethical rules, cannot. We raise ethical issues for which there is no legal vocabulary.

Narrative campaigns hand people a common peace lens and invite them to adopt a different perspective. In the process, dehumanized defendants become American citizens. Tough-on-crime narratives are transformed into common peace parables. We don’t win everyone over, of course. But, slowly and gradually, we are easing the nation back to a common peace consensus.