West Memphis revisited 

Race-divided city now finds blacks pitted against one another.

Page 2 of 7

Fast-forward to the present era and the on-going racial conflict in Crittenden County. In retrospect, given the intent of the federal voting rights act and the history of the often successful efforts of the state of Arkansas and its subdivisions to control and/or marginalize black voting in heavily black areas, it was perhaps inevitable that the federal judiciary would intervene by sanctioning the creation of super-majority black districts of 60 percent through the process of redistricting. This crucial litigation brought by advocates in the Delta (known as the Hunt Consent Decree to lawyers) was intended to rectify vestiges of discrimination in the electoral process. Central to this story, it would ultimately result in the election of African-American Circuit Judge Victor Hill.

Today, according to the 2010 Census, the racial percentages in West Memphis have flipped. The white population in West Memphis is 33 percent. In some ways, West Memphis is like many towns in the Delta as white flight continues to take its toll on public resources. As will be seen, in one significant way it is not.

As a result of the federal redistricting litigation in the 1980s, there was a dramatic increase in the number of blacks elected to positions within Crittenden County (and elsewhere in parts of the state where significant numbers of African Americans reside, including Pulaski County). In the '60s and early '70s, black protests and boycotts in the Delta had no direct means of resulting in change. The Hunt Consent Decree litigation has changed all that. For some time there have been six blacks on the West Memphis City Council out of a total of 10 (not counting the mayor), but the levers of power are in the hands of whites. The mayor is white, and key city officials are white, as well as the vast majority of policemen and firemen.

A change in the black leadership began to emerge with the shooting death of DeAunta Farrow. Initially, African-Americans in West Memphis seemed united. A group called the Concerned Pastors and Citizens met with city officials, including police Chief Robert "Bob" Paudert in August 2007, but accomplished little of substance. The Concerned Pastors and Citizens group began to fall apart.

Though on the surface after the disintegration of the pastors' group there seemed to be no organizational challenge to the perceived abuses by the West Memphis Police Department, clearly the black community was providing a barrage of complaints to their ward representatives, James Pulliaum, Herman Coleman, Lorraine Robinson and Marco McClendon. Some of the black councilmen, responding to constituents in their wards, became irate over the continuing reports of overly aggressive tactics of the West Memphis Police Department under the leadership of Chief Paudert, who is white. Like a number of police departments throughout the country, the West Memphis police engaged in what has been termed pro-active police measures.

Paudert announced in August 2009, two years after Farrow's death, that, after consulting with the mayor, the West Memphis police would have different enforcement policies for the east and west neighborhoods in the city. "Starting today ... we will be a reactive police force in the east sections of the city. They don't want us in their community." Paudert said, "For my police officers and this department, it is not a black/white thing, its [sic] about people. The fact is, most crime is committed in the black community. We risk our lives going into those communities to protect them. Then they complain about us." He said that the complaints were affecting the department. "It is hard on our officers. We are losing them. We lost two today to Memphis. We are demoralized by the action of our employers." He called for public support of the police.



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