Has Jim Crow finally been put down? Not here in Texas I am afraid. The Jim Crow legacy continues to live here in the Lone Star State. It hides in plain sight in our most public of buildings and our most public of laws.
The old cliche holds that a picture is worth a thousand words. More then, lurks below the fold.
Jim Crow still lives on in Texas in the nooks and crannies of our public places without our notice or protest. It remains in laws we do not think about, yet works in insidious ways no less effective to disenfrancise and suppress minority vote. The symbols, like the laws, simply hide in plain sight.
One of those nooks and crannys is in the Brazos County, Texas, Courthouse. The existing courthouse was built between 1954 and 1956. This remnant of Jim Crow is unmarked seperate water fountains recessed into the second floor wall. Below is how the two fountains appeared in September, 2008.<imgscr=ahref="http://s471.photobucket.com/albums/rr71/lanethibodeaux_photo/?action=view¤t=Brazos_Co_Cthse.jpg" target="_blank">
The hallway in which these now inoperable water fountains are located is the most heavily travelled in the courthouse. To enter the courtroom in which most criminal defendants make their first appearance it is necessary to walk past the water fountains. No markings exist informing about the irony of these inoperable water fountains in a building dedicated to supposed equal justice.
Do those with business at the courthouse realize the history behind these water fountains? Jurors sit next to the fountains week after week with with the look of mild annoyment that comes with the disruption caused by jury service. They absently read a book unaware of the history immediately beside them. Do they know? Do they care?
This courthouse is the County's sixth. The fact the identical water fountains are recessed into the wall suggest they were engineered into the planning of the structure. Ironically Texas A & M Univeristy("TAMU"), one of the largest land grant Universities in the country is located in Brazos County, minutes away from the courthouse. That would be the same university that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was President of from 2002 to 2006. More irony: many of the bored jurors sitting next to these fountains week in, week out, are TAMU faculty members.
Many in our community have been around long enough to give a history of local Jim Crow segregation. You simply have to ask. One provided me the history of Jim Crow at the Courthouse. I asked him first about the water fountains. "The one on the right had the 'Colored' sign over it" he shared.
I asked about remnants of other segregated facilities in the courthouse. "The restrooms on the third floor on the old side of the courthouse (the courthouse was expanded between 1984-86) had 'White Only' on them". "They cut the 'White' off the restroom signs sometime in the '60's and took the 'Colored Only' and 'White Only' signs down from above the water fountains about the same time".
I smiled to myself at the thought of how the sign would have read after the impromptu change - "Women Only". I conjured up an image of a 1970's era juror, blissfully unaware of the provenance of the third floor restrooms, wondering what in the name of Sam Hill kind of hanky panky was happening at the courthouse that required a "Women Only" sign being put on the restroom.
The third floor restrooms remain, but the old signage replaced. They have been swallowed off from public view by sheet rock from the ever expanding need for office space. This remnant of Jim Crow is therefore walled off, and unused by the public.
But Jim Crow has more reach than a forgotten, inoperable water fountain in Brazos County. It is in full flower among the laws of the State of Texas. That is, if a Jim Crow law is defined to include a facially neutral law that disproportionately and negatively affect minority voting (think of a literacy test). If this is Jim Crow, then Mr. Crow lives on buried in the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure.
Individuals who have been convicted of a felony are disqualified from jury service in Texas. Two provisions of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure statutorily provide for it:
Art. 35.16. REASONS FOR CHALLENGE FOR CAUSE. (a) A
challenge for cause is an objection made to a particular juror,
alleging some fact which renders the juror incapable or unfit to
serve on the jury. A challenge for cause may be made by either the
state or the defense for any one of the following reasons:
* * * * *
- That the juror has been convicted of misdemeanor theft or a felony;
- That the juror is under indictment or other legal accusation for misdemeanor theft or a felony;
- That the juror is insane;
Art. 35.19. ABSOLUTE DISQUALIFICATION. No juror shall be
impaneled when it appears that he is subject to the second, third or
fourth cause of challenge in Article 35.16, though both parties may
These two statues mean that if you have been convicted of a felony you are absolutely disqualified to serve on a jury in Texas. There is disagreement concerning whether a felon (or an individual convicted of misdemeanor theft) that has successfully completed probation is disqualified, but that is not really significant to make the point sought here. Even if "felony conviction" in these statutory provisons apply only to a felony convictions resulting in a term in prison, the effect is profound.
How this translate into a disproportionate effect on minority voting in Texas is as follows: Based on the Texas Department of Criminal Justice("TDCJ") approximately 68% of prison inmates ("offenders") in Texas are of either African American or Hispanic ethnicity. The statistical and demographic breakdown provided by the TDCJ is in .pdf format and can be found here. The TDCJ statistics include Substance Abuse Felony Punishment ("SAFP") offenders, but the statistic in this diary have excluded these offenders, as SAFP is considered primarily a theraputic alternative and most often imposed as a condition of probation.
The same statistical compliation by the TDCJ discloses that just about half of the almost 150,000 incarcerated in Texas prisons as of August 1, 2007 (the latest date statistics are available through the TDCJ website) are serving sentences for non-violent offenses. None of these individuals will ever be eligible for jury service, even upon completion of sentence.
Is this good public policy? Probably not. Recidivism is reduced when the offender is absorded into the civic fabric of the communtiy. The point, however, is not the policy debate, but that as a result of this disqualification A jury panel in Texas will rarely resemble the demographic of the community from which it is drawn. Instead it will be disproportonality white, older and female.
To make it more personal, walk for a while in the shoes of a twenty year old person of color charged with possessing an amount of cocaine less than a gram, a felony grade offense in Texas. Personal use amounts. Happens everyday in courts in Texas.
This hypothetical person of color will walk into a courthouse for their first appearance in Brazos County, Texas right past those water fountains. If this person goes on to jury trial, they will look out on a jury panel from which a jury will be selected. How many faces of color representing a cross section of the community will be looking back at them? One? Two? Three? What would any twenty year old under these circumstances do? What would a person of color be thinking about equal justice in the Criminal Justice System in Texas?
If subsequently convicted placed on probation, or prison with later parole, this person is ineligible to vote under Texas Law until completion of sentence. Much has been written on felony disenfranchisment and the subject is beyond the scope of this diary. Currently Virgina and Kentucky have lifetime voting bans for felons. Other states have waiting periods before felons are eligible to vote. The Sentencing Project maintains an excllent website providing information on felony disenfranchisment and the various state by state applications. The Sentencing Project website is located here. The point of this diary is that the disqualification from jury service in Texas remains even after completion of sentence. This disqualification disproportionately effects persons of color. This forever perpetuates the cycle.
Many convicted of felony crimes incorrectly assume they cannot vote because of the conviction after completion of sentence. This is only reinforced by a felon who recieves a jury service notice because he has a driver's license (Texas summons jurors by Driver's License and Voter Registrion), but once summoned is told at the courthouse by a judge or court personal they are absolutely disqualified from jury service. "Absolutely Disqualified". Sounds intimidating, does it not?
I asked my informal historian where the old "Colored" restrooms were in the courthouse. "Basement" was his one word reply. Again, walled off and inaccessible. Access to the basement is behind a locked door off the main lobby with a sign marked "Authorized Personel Only". Walled off. Forgotten. Not talked about.