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Trouble in Tulia

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Mattie White never planned on becoming an activist. Being black in Tulia, Texas (pop. 5,033), wasn’t always easy, but she saw the dusty crossroads halfway between Amarillo and Lubbock as a haven from big-city dangers. “I like Tulia,” says the 51-year-old grandmother. “You don’t have to worry about drive-by shootings and people breaking into your house.”

But White’s view of her hometown would change forever on July 23, 1999, when local sheriff’s deputies arrested 46 people—all but six of them African-American—as alleged drug dealers. Although the only evidence came from a single white undercover officer with a checkered past and, critics charge, a penchant for lying, four of White’s six children, her brother, a niece, two nephews, two cousins and a son-in-law were caught up in the dragnet, making her the person with the most jailed relatives in town. “I guess I was in shock,” she says. “I never did cry.”

Since then the Tulia case has become a lightning rod for civil rights activists and the subject of investigations by the Texas attorney general and U.S. Department of Justice. Prominent pundits, from liberal New York Times columnist Bob Herbert to conservative talk show host Bill O’Reilly, have denounced the arrests. And through it all, White has worked tirelessly to free the 13 still incarcerated, who include a son and a daughter. “Mattie is my hero,” says Randy Credico, director of the New York City-based William Moses Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice, which is helping contest the convictions. “Her strength inspires those around her.”

That toughness comes from a hard-scrabble life on the Texas plains. Born in 1951 to Early Smith and his wife, Ida, both farmworkers, Mattie grew up poor in then-segregated Tulia, where blacks were barred from white schools and restaurants. In 1972 she married machinist Rickey White, raising Cecil, 35, Tonya, 33, Donnie, 32, Rickey, 30, Kizzie, 25, and Kareem, 23, while picking cotton, fixing radios and working in a Levi’s factory. (Mattie and Rickey divorced in 1981, and she married truck driver Coby Russell, 26, last January.) After her children were grown, she studied to become a corrections officer and worked as a home health aide. “She’s been there for her kids through thick and thin,” says friend Barbara Yarbrough.

No one in White’s family saw trouble coming when a white newcomer to Tulia who worked alongside Donnie at a local stockyard befriended several local blacks. Although he called himself T.J. Dawson, the stranger was actually Tom Coleman, now 42, an undercover officer employed by Swisher County Sheriff Larry Stewart as part of a federally funded initiative to combat narcotics. Town residents disagree about the extent of an actual drug problem in tiny Tulia, but for 18 months Coleman—who never wore a wire, never worked with a partner and kept few written records of alleged drug deals other than notes scrawled on his leg—approached dozens of people in Tulia’s black community, asking to buy small amounts of cocaine and other drugs. “No way I’m prejudiced,” he insists. “Tulia is not the nice, sweet little place people think it is.”

In the summer of 1999 Stewart orchestrated a wave of predawn arrests based on Coleman’s information—hauling suspects into the county jail in their bedclothes and parading them before the local media (“Tulia Streets Cleared of Garbage,” read one headline in a local newspaper). In a series of trials that lasted no more than four days each, juries on which no blacks served meted out harsh retribution. Kizzie White, then 22 and with no prior criminal record, was sentenced to 25 years in prison; her ex-boyfriend William Cash Love, a white man who had a previous conviction for marijuana possession, received 341 years for selling cocaine. Kareem White, who had a previous felony conviction for robbery, received a 60-year sentence for selling Coleman 3.5 grams of the drug.

To avoid such penalties several defendants entered plea bargains. (Donnie Smith, who uses his mother’s maiden name, admitted to using crack but not selling it and ultimately served two years in prison.) But many of the accused steadfastly denied ever meeting the informer. Charges against Tonya White and two others were dropped after they proved they were out of town or at work when Coleman said they were dealing drugs. Another defendant, described as “tall and bushy-haired,” was freed when lawyers pointed out he was short and bald.

Coleman’s own record also raised questions about his testimony. One Texas sheriff who had employed him described the deputy as unreliable, and investigators discovered that Coleman was the subject of an arrest warrant in another county for stealing gasoline during the time he was undercover. Local judges, however, ruled most of that information inadmissible in the Tulia trials. “I was shocked,” says lawyer Vanita Gupta of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. “An entire community was brought down basically on the word of one man.”

Infuriated, White took action. Although she was raising Kizzie’s two children and working two jobs, she became a spokeswoman for defendants’ families and joined with a group of local whites called the Friends of Justice to publicize the case. Prompted by White and others, the NAACP filed suit to overturn the convictions, charging that the prosecution had suppressed information about Coleman’s credibility. White also worked with the Kunstler Fund to raise nearly $10,000 to help the convicts and their families get back on their feet.

Still, local authorities and many townspeople believe the trials were fair and that charges of racism are unjust. “There’s nothing special about [the drug defendants] other than they saw an easy way to make money,” says Tulia’s Mayor Boyd Vaughn. Sheriff Stewart continues to believe that his deputy, who now lives in Waxahachie, Texas, “did what he said he did in Swisher County.”

White is determined to prove otherwise. She has traveled to Austin several times to lobby on behalf of a state law requiring undercover operatives to provide corroboration for evidence at drug trials. The legislation passed in May 2001. “Without her the bill would have died,” says William Harrell, executive director of the Texas ACLU. But until the remaining Tulia defendants are freed, she sees her work as far from done. “I’m just the mother,” she says of her children still in prison. “I’m hurting, but not like them.”

J.D. Heyman

Kevin Brass in Tulia and Beth Perry in New York City