Old South racism lives in Texas town

Billy Ray Johnson was beaten and tossed on top of an ant mound. His four white attackers received a slap on the wrist.

By Howard Witt
Tribune senior correspondent

June 5, 2005

LINDEN, Texas—They picked up Billy Ray Johnson outside a convenience store in this East Texas bayou town, a place where Confederate flags fly in some front yards and a mural of barefoot slaves picking cotton greets patrons inside the local post office.

On a cool September night in 2003, they drove the 42-year-old mentally retarded black man to a cow pasture where a crowd of white youths was having a party. They got Johnson drunk, they made him dance, they jeered at him with racial epithets.

Then, according to court testimony, one of Johnson’s assailants punched him in the face, knocking him out cold. They tossed his unconscious body into the back of a pickup and dumped him by the side of a dirt road, on top of a mound of stinging fire ants.

Johnson, who family members say functioned at the level of a 12-year-old before the attack, was in a coma for a week. He suffered a brain hemorrhage that slurred his speech, weakened his legs and deprived him of his ability to take care of himself. His body was covered with hundreds of painful ant bites.

Today he lives on public assistance, confined to a nursing home in nearby Texarkana, where his family fears he will have to remain for the rest of his life.

The four young white men convicted of various charges in the incident are confined in the county jail, but not for long. A judge last month sentenced three of the four to terms of 30 days in jail, and the fourth to 60 days.

Even that, however, was more than the jurors who heard two of the cases thought appropriate: They acquitted the defendants of the most serious charges and recommended no jail time at all.

To many African-Americans in Linden, the impoverished county seat of Cass County hard by the Arkansas and Louisiana borders, what happened to Johnson was nothing less than a hate crime, frighteningly reminiscent of the worst racial attacks in the Old South.

“There’s people down here doing things to dogs, and they get more than a year in prison,” said Lue Wilson, 58, Johnson’s cousin and legal guardian. “You’ll never get a jury in Cass County to convict a white man for doing something to a black man.”

But to many whites here, the incident was simply a story of some “good ole boys” drinking too much and getting out of hand.

“It was a very unfortunate and senseless thing,” said Wilford Penny, 73, who last month completed a 6-year term as Linden’s mayor. “But I don’t think there was anything racial about it. These guys were drinking, and this guy [Johnson] liked to dance. I’m not surprised when they get to drinking and use the n-word. The black boy was somewhere he shouldn’t have been, although they brought him out there.”

Built on backs of slaves

History weighs heavily on this town founded in the mid-1850s whose long-ago agricultural prosperity was built on the backs of slaves floated up the nearby Red River from Shreveport and New Orleans.

The slave mural in the post office lobby was painted in the 1930s by Victor Arnautoff, a renowned artist of the social realism school, and despite periodic protests from black customers, postal officials say they have no plans to remove it.

Today the word “boy” still falls easily from the lips of some whites when they are referring to African-American men, an indignity that Wilson, a Vietnam veteran and retired steelworker, said he long ago grew accustomed to.

And troubling incidents tinged by race still divide Linden’s 2,256 residents, one-fifth of them black and four-fifths of them white.

There was the case in 1994 when a black man who had been dating a white woman was found dead from a gunshot to the groin. And another in 2001, when a black man who had been dating a white woman was found hanging from a tree. Local officials ruled the first case a hunting accident and the second a suicide, despite the persistent doubts of family members and civil rights officials.

“There are a few areas in Texas that have kind of bypassed the civil rights era,” said Gary Bledsoe, president of the Texas branch of the NAACP. “Linden is one of those. It’s an island of the ‘50s up there.”

The Texarkana Gazette, the biggest newspaper in the region, wrote an editorial last month criticizing the light sentences imposed on Johnson’s attackers.

“Sad to say,” the paper wrote, “most of us agree that if the circumstances were reversed--if four blacks had perpetrated this crime on a white person--things would have turned out differently.”

Others, however, see more shades of gray surrounding the Johnson case--and the state of local race relations.

“I think it’s unfair to the county to make it a total black-and-white issue,” said Tina Richardson, the assistant district attorney who prosecuted the case and Cass County’s only black lawyer. “I know the stigma at this point is that in Cass County it looks like whites are greatly prejudiced against blacks. But you have good and bad no matter what area of the country you’re living in.

“There were just as many if not more whites who were displeased at the outcome” of the Johnson case as were content with it, Richardson added.

At the heart of the case

Whether Johnson was victimized because he is black or because he is mentally retarded lies at the heart of the conflicting readings of the case. Witnesses who attended the pasture party on Sept. 27, 2003, gave authorities evidence on both counts.

“Everybody knew [Johnson] was mentally challenged, that he wasn’t quite right,” said one 23-year-old white resident of Linden who attended the party but spoke on the condition that he not be identified. “He was having a good time, drinking. Then they started making fun of him a little bit, making him dance. It was kind of to have someone to amuse them, to make a monkey out of him.”

At one point during the party, Richardson said trial testimony showed, Johnson was directed to stick his hand into a bonfire to remove a burning log--evidence that he was being baited because of his mental disabilities.

But many other witnesses reported that Johnson was also subjected to “a lot of racial slurs,” Richardson said.

“It was the n-word,” she said, “and there were references made concerning the Ku Klux Klan, asking [Johnson] what he would do if the KKK had come out that night.”

As the party wound down after midnight, evidence showed, Christopher Colt Amox, who was 20 at the time, punched Johnson in the mouth, toppling him to the ground. As Johnson lay unconscious, vomiting and gagging, Amox and three other young men--James Cory Hicks, then 24; Dallas Chadwick Stone, then 18; and John Wesley Owens, then 19--debated whether to call an ambulance, authorities said. Instead, they loaded Johnson into a pickup truck and drove him 2 miles down a little-used dirt road, tossing him next to a public dump, on top of the nest of fire ants.

Several hours later, Hicks, who at the time worked as a guard at the Cass County Jail, returned to the scene and called the local sheriff to report that he had found “a man passed out on the ground.”

The FBI and local law-enforcement officials investigated the case, and all came to the conclusion that what happened to Johnson was a crime based on his mental incapacity, not his race. Thus no state or federal hate crimes or civil rights charges were lodged.

`Mean-spirited and cruel’

“This was a bunch of guys who were mean-spirited and cruel, and they abused a black man who was retarded,” said Malcolm Bales, chief of the criminal division in the U.S. attorney’s office in Marshall, Texas, which covers Cass County. “That’s terrible. But it doesn’t give rise to a federal civil rights case.”

Instead, the four attackers were charged with various counts of aggravated assault and injury to a disabled person by omission that could have sent them to prison for up to 10 years. Stone and Owens pleaded guilty to the injury by omission charges and agreed to testify against Amox and Hicks, who opted for jury trials.

The jurors in those cases, three of whom were black, acquitted Amox and Hicks of aggravated assault. Amox was convicted of misdemeanor assault, and Hicks was convicted of injury to a disabled person by omission.

Both juries recommended suspended sentences and probation as punishment. But District Judge Ralph Burgess, using his authority to impose additional jail time, last month sentenced Owens, Stone and Amox to 30 days in jail, and sentenced Hicks to 60 days.

“They were trying to make it out to be like a felony, like they beat him up, and he [Amox] hit him one time,” said Michael Spencer, the jury foreman in the Amox trial. “It wasn’t like they sat there and kicked him and beat him.

“This wasn’t just something where we’re all biased and we were going to let these good ole boys go,” Spencer added. “But the guy had a job, and we didn’t feel he will be any more menace to society. . . . We didn’t deem it necessary to put him in the county jail for a year.”

Family plans civil claims

But the outcome of the case and the refusal of the authorities to press hate crimes charges against Johnson’s attackers have outraged civil rights officials. Johnson’s family is planning to file civil claims against the four men, and the NAACP is pressing state and federal officials to assign a special prosecutor to take another look at filing additional charges.

“There’s absolutely no question this was a racial case,” said the NAACP’s Bledsoe. “A bunch of folks got drunk and just happened to have a person of another race do bug dancing and ridicule him. It clearly should have been charged as a hate crime.”

Most of the defendants’ families declined requests for interviews about the case. But Martha Howell, Hicks’ mother, said her son never touched Johnson and didn’t deserve to be punished.

“These boys’ names are ruined for life,” Howell said. “And [Johnson] is better off today than he’s ever been in his life. He roamed the streets, the family never knew where he was. Now in the nursing home he’s got someone to take care of him.”

That is not how Johnson sees it.

As he sat recently in the cramped, stuffy room he shares with another nursing home patient, idly thumbing some faded photos of old junk cars he’d like someday to restore, Johnson was asked how he’s feeling these days.

“I want to go home,” he said emphatically, in his only words intelligible to a visitor. “Home.”


Copyright 2005, Chicago Tribune

Posted by Nuttshell on 06/08 at 02:45 PM in Racism / Prejudice

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