NAACP doing what it does best in fighting racial injustice

August 31, 2002|By GREGORY KANE

THE NAACP, its critics say, is nothing more these days than a wing of the Democratic party. The organization's not about the business of civil rights anymore, the naysayers crow. Black conservative Ward Connerly dismissed today's NAACP as "largely irrelevant."

Focus more organizational energy on the problems of teen pregnancy and crime among blacks, the scolds urge NAACP leaders. Forget about fighting racial injustices.

The problem is, fighting racial injustice was exactly why the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was formed. It's what the organization does best. There is a black organization that, for years, has focused on teen pregnancy and crime among blacks. But it's the one white America, for the most part, can't stand: the Nation of Islam.

But when an injustice based on race is perceived, the NAACP is often the first place blacks, even in this day and age, turn to for help. Thus did some African-Americans from a place called Tulia head up the Texas panhandle in 1999 to the NAACP chapter in Amarillo after 47 people - three white, three Hispanic, the rest black - were arrested in the small town on drug charges.

The story has been told and retold by Texas papers and The New York Times. Tom Coleman, an undercover narcotics cop for the Swisher County sheriff's department, launched an 18-month investigation in the town. Many people, Coleman said, sold him drugs.

How did Coleman document the drug transactions? Did he wear a wire and record the deals going down on audiotape? Did the sheriff's department have a camera set up to videotape the deals? Oh no, that would have been much too modern.

Coleman simply hiked up his pants and scribbled the details of the drug sales on his leg. Clever chap, that Coleman. A regular Joe Friday.

Needless to say, Coleman's method of undercover work led to some problems. One defendant used time sheets and his boss' testimony to prove he was at work when Coleman said he sold him drugs. Another man Coleman described as tall and bushy-haired was short and bald.

Two sisters, Kizzie and Tanya White, were arrested in the operation. Kizzie got 25 years. (She and 13 others remain in prison.) Tanya was acquitted after a defense lawyer showed she was cashing a check in Oklahoma City when Coleman said he was buying cocaine from her.

Coleman has been described as an unstable liar who, according to a sheriff in another county where Coleman worked before Tulia, "should not be in law enforcement." He had been indicted for theft in that county.

Critics of the convictions in Tulia say that the only evidence prosecutors had was Coleman's eyewitness testimony. The blacks arrested equal about 10 percent of Tulia's African-American population. None of the juries in any of the trials had any blacks.

"The one thing that concerns us most," NAACP President Kweisi Mfume said, "is that in this age, something like this can take place. It's a tale of the dark days of the South all of us grew up under."

The NAACP, Mfume said, has been involved in the Tulia case from the start. Gary Bledsoe, the organization's Texas conference president, has spent a great deal of time on it. The NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, a sister organization of the NAACP, is lending a hand in the case.

Everything about what happened in Tulia three years ago flunks the smell test with a grade a few quadrillion notches below an F. It's enough to make even the most hardened Ku Klux Klansman go "Huh?"

Justice Department officials under a liberal Democratic president and a conservative Republican one can find no civil rights violations in the case. Texas officials pass the buck to one another. President Bush, who was governor of Texas when this latest drug war boo-boo went down, said nothing then and is silent now.

When Frank Moore and 11 other black men were charged with murdering a white man in Elaine, Ark., in 1919, the NAACP was on the case, taking it to the Supreme Court, which ruled in 1923 that a lynch mob gathered outside the courtroom while the trial was in process precluded an acquittal. The NAACP was there for the Scottsboro boys, falsely accused of raping two white women in Alabama during the 1930s.

Standing up for the 19 people still imprisoned as a result of the 1999 Tulia drug sting is one of the solid, steady, "irrelevant" NAACP's finest hours.

"This is the calling that the NAACP heeds best," Mfume said, "where it is a pure matter of right and wrong and can't be clouded with all sorts of other things. Maybe it's cases like this that fate gives us to remind us why we came into existence 93 years ago."

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