Check out the cover story in this week’s Arkansas Times. It arises from the anguish and controversy surrounding the shooting of 12-year-old DeAunta Farrow (above) by a West Memphis policeman last June. The officer, who is white, claimed that DeAunta, who was black, had a toy gun, which the policeman mistook for a real one. Whether such a gun actually existed remains in dispute. What is not disputable, however, is how clearly the tragedy has revealed the depth of the divide that separates most blacks and whites in Crittenden County.
The article in the Times traces the county’s saga of racial injustice back a century and a half. For the most part, it’s an ugly story. One episode involves Julian Fogleman, a relative of John Fogelman, who in more recent times served as an assistant prosecutor at the trials of the West Memphis Three. In 1963, Julian Fogelman was an assistant prosecuting attorney, when Arthur Lee Anderson, an unarmed, black, 16-year-old boy, was shot in the back by a man who believed the boy had raped his daughter. According to the article by Grif Stockley:
“A coroner’s jury composed of 19 white men took testimony the next day and concluded that the shooting had been justified under Arkansas law. Julian Fogleman … closed the investigation and stated, “We think we have brought all the witnesses before the coroner’s jury and exposed all the facts. We don’t think the decision was wrong and don’t plan to go further with it.” Stockley also noted that, “according to the coroner’s report, Anderson did not rape or physically injure the girl.” And he added, “One would have to be from another planet to believe that if Anderson had been white he would have been chased down and shot from behind.” I would add that it defies the imagination to think that, if Anderson had been white, a prosecutor would have opted “not to go further” with an investigation.
Sadly, it is part of our heritage in this state—and in this country—that race and class converge. My own view is that color is often a diversion from the real issue, which is power—and the desire to maintain it at all costs. In east Arkansas, power has been in the hands of wealthy white people for a long time. Blacks and poor white people have been the powerless. This is where I believe this week’s story in the Arkansas Times informs the case of the West Memphis Three. Damien, Jason and Jessie are white, but more importantly, they were also poor, and they came up against a power establishment that needed a solution to an unsolved triple-murder case, and needed one quick, lest its authority in any way be weakened. By now, all levels of state government have joined in on the perceived need to support the verdicts. But, as this nation’s civil rights struggle has taught us, just because officials dig in their heels does not make their stance correct.