The Truth About Tulia

Human Rights

Tonya White is a very lucky woman. Ms. White lives in Tulia, Texas but she was in a bank in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma at the same time she was accused of dealing drugs in Tulia.

The terrible injustice perpetrated on residents of Tulia, Texas is not a new story. Forty-six innocent individuals, 39 of them black, were arrested, tried and convicted for drug dealing, solely on the word of former police officer Tom Coleman. Coleman is now under indictment for perjury.

Here in New York City crooked cops find it necessary to plant evidence in order to win convictions, but not so in the Texas panhandle. Coleman had no evidence, not wire taps, videotapes or even the drugs that had allegedly been sold. Yet he succeeded in getting sentences of up to 99 years in these cases.

I first read about the Tulia case in Bob Herbert's New York Times column. Attorneys in Texas, New York, and Washington, many of them volunteers, were all part of the successful defense effort. The result is that all of the defendants have been freed and 35 have been pardoned by the governor of Texas.

I watched a story about Tulia on the September 28th season premier of 60 Minutes and it was truly painful to revisit. Some of the cases were dismissed because the accused were able to prove they were at work or, like Tonya White, not in Tulia during the alleged drug dealing. One defendant, Joe Moore, is a pig farmer living in what I can only describe as a shack. That alone should have been evidence that he wasn't a drug dealer. I always thought that drug dealers plied their trade to avoid living in shacks.

Correspondent Ed Bradley interviewed Coleman in an exchange that was both frightening and comical. Coleman was defiant but kept addressing Ed Bradley as "Sir." The former cop admitted using the word nigger many times but when asked if he would address Bradley that way he replied, “Oh, no sir, not you.” He still maintains that the defendants were drug dealers, even when presented with Tonya White’s proof of being in Oklahoma. The strangest question from Bradley was, "How has this affected your life?" Tom Coleman is not yet behind bars. Because of his actions 46 people were imprisoned unjustly and lost their freedom for more than three years. I hope I was not the only viewer who wasn't concerned about Coleman’s life. But surprisingly, this segment was not the most disturbing portion of the broadcast.

Bradley spoke with Elaine Jones of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, whose attorneys played a key role in overturning the convictions. Ed Bradley asked a very predictable question, "How did this happen?" Ms. Jones stated the obvious when she said, “The defendants in Tulia are guilty of being Black and living in Tulia.” She went on to say that the town was too small to have a market for drug dealing on such a scale, and also blamed the excesses created by the war on drugs.

My initial reaction to Ms. Jones’ statement was that such a heinous injustice required more than a matter of fact explanation about population size and overzealous bureaucracy. But in fairness to Bradley and Jones, I am sure that their conversation was much longer than the snippets shown to viewers. They may have discussed the nature of racism, the farce that is the war on drugs, and how that led to Tulia and other cases of police and judicial misconduct. Elaine Jones and her colleagues who worked on this case could tell us all a lot more if they were not constrained by the need to allow time for real news, advertisements, and the genius of Andy Rooney.

However, the rest of us are under no such restrictions and should use these much needed if incomplete news reports as an opportunity to speak honestly about Tulia and other injustices. The sad truth is, these convictions occurred because of white supremacy. Tom Coleman had credibility with jurors because he has white skin. He didn't need wiretaps or fingerprints. A white face declaring black guilt was sufficient evidence to get prison sentences for non-existent crimes.

Talking about white supremacy takes a lot longer than sixty minutes and is difficult for people of every race to acknowledge. It is easy to call a member of the Aryan Nation or KKK a white supremacist. They give us an out by publicly embracing their beliefs. But what do we say about physicians who treat white and black patients differently, or the loan officers who refuse mortgages to blacks and Hispanics who have the same income as whites?

The words white supremacy are so loaded, and conjure up such horrible images that it is no surprise most people aren’t willing to own them, even as they reject the more qualified job applicant or hire him but pay less than he deserves. The pain it causes is so terrible that even victims are in denial. As Tulia defendant Freddie Brookins Jr., said, "I can't just dwell on being angry. If I stay upset about it, I can't go on with my life.” Most of us have not had his experience, and yet his words are familiar. We acknowledge racism but don’t dwell on it too much because we want to live our lives without anger and bitterness.

But we are still angry and bitter. We waste time asking questions that more often than not have an obvious and simple answer. “Why am I followed around in the store?” Answer: white supremacy. “Why does the world stop brutality in Bosnia but not in the Congo or Liberia?” Answer: white supremacy. “Why doesn’t Angela Bassett get more and better roles?” Answer: white supremacy. I could go on with important and unimportant issues alike but you get the idea. When these questions arise we should take a deep breath, count to ten and then say, “White supremacy.” The initial discomfort will be overcome by a feeling of freedom. Our circumstances may not be any different, but the willingness to tell the truth will be liberating.

People of color are imprisoned unjustly, victimized by police brutality, die earlier than they should and are excluded from the opportunities this country has to offer, all because of a belief that white people are superior and more deserving than non-whites. It seems that this belief also causes otherwise worthy sources of information to address even the most egregious examples of racism in a superficial manner. I don’t expect anyone at CBS to have a serious discussion about white supremacy, but I would have thought that a more in-depth analysis would take place in telling the story of Tulia. It didn’t happen. The reasons are obvious.

Margaret Kimberley is a freelance writer in New York City.  She can be reached at

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