It’s like a scene from the 1960s — a Black mayor stepped out of line with powerful White politicians in a small Louisiana town, and it cost him his freedom. Now it’s up to us to help win it back.
Bobby Higginbotham, mayor of Waterproof, LA, started making policies intended to bring the town more revenue and give it more control over police matters. In doing so, Higginbotham made mistakes, but he didn’t commit any crimes. But District Attorney James Paxton took advantage of the errors to arrest Higginbotham on 44 trumped-up charges and install a political ally in his place.
After being forced to represent himself in trial, Higginbotham was convicted before a nearly all-White jury in a parish where the majority of residents are Black.
This isn’t the first time a Louisiana prosecutor has abused his power against Black folks who don’t “know their place” — a similar scene played out in the case of the Jena Six. But if enough of us speak out, we can expose his behavior and help free the former mayor. Please join us in calling on Paxton to end his bogus prosecution of Bobby Higginbotham, and then ask your friends and family to do the same: www.colorofchange.org
Waterproof is a town of only 800 people in Louisiana’s Tensas Parish, the last parish in the state to allow Black folks to vote. The parish is more than 55% Black, but it’s the wealthy Whites who hold the power there. Journalist Jordan Flaherty writes that “Waterproof is ‘reminiscent of the bygone days of southern politics,’ with a White power structure maintaining political power over a black majority…”1 Even with a minority of citizens, Whites controlled the wealth, the jobs, and the politics.
Soon after Bobby Higginbotham took office in tiny Waterproof, LA the new Black mayor began challenging the area’s most powerful White officials — namely Sheriff Rickey Jones and District Attorney James Paxton — by establishing a local police force that would provide better local service, in effect competing with the parish Sheriff. Before Higginbotham took office, the Waterproof police force was anemic. According to former Waterproof Police Chief Miles Jenkins, “[If] You called the Waterproof police for help before, [they] would say, ‘wait ’til tomorrow, it’s too hot to come out today.'” Under Higginbotham and Jenkins, Waterproof’s new police force grew in size and collected its own traffic tickets — siphoning revenue and influence from the Sheriff.
A Black deputy sheriff warned not to push against the system too hard: “You’ve got to adapt to your environment. You can’t come to a small town and do things the same way you might in a big city. Like the song says, you got to know when to hold ’em, and know when to fold ’em.”
Mr. Higginbotham didn’t fold. Instead, he brought a direct, some say in-your-face, attitude that rubbed figures like the Sheriff and DA the wrong way. According to Waterproof resident Annie Watson,“The Mayor and the Chief said you can’t treat people this way, and the Sheriff and DA said you got to know your place. If you’re educated and intelligent and know your rights in this parish, you are in trouble. They are determined to let you know you have a place and if you don’t jump when they say jump you are in trouble.”2
As a result, Higginbotham and Jenkins endured major harassment by Paxton and Jones — Jenkins alleges being beaten by Sheriff’s deputies, while both Waterproof officials claim that Paxton and Jones had them arrested under false pretenses on several occasions. The harrassment culminated with Higginbotham’s arrest on bogus, trumped-up corruption charges. With Higginbotham out of the way, Paxton pulled levers to replace Higginbotham with a political ally.
It’s clear to us that Higginbotham made mistakes as mayor, mistakes pointed out in a 2008 Louisiana legislative auditor’s report. But what also seems clear is that Higginbotham’s errors as mayor did not rise to the level of the criminal. In the wake of the report, the mayor sought to correct all issues highlighted by the audit, including hiring an independent auditor to review the town’s financial records. That didn’t stop the District Attorney from charging Mr. Higginbotham with 44 counts of corruption, all but two of which were later dropped.
Higginbotham was charged with felony theft for giving himself what the DA claims is an unauthorized raise. But this raise was in the budget passed by the Board of Aldermen, along with raises for themselves which they received, just as he did. Higginbotham was also charged with malfeasance in office for allegedly using a town credit card for personal charges — an honest mistake that Higginbotham immediately corrected. Both of these charges are the result of an intentional distortion of facts based on a personal vendetta against Higginbotham.
At trial, Higginbotham was forced to represent himself. It also appears that the record of the meeting where the mayor’s raise was approved, which could clear him, is now “missing.” He was convicted by a jury containing five White members to only one Black member — in a parish where Blacks make up nearly 60% of the residents. The judge gave the jury polling slips that had “guilty” pre-selected. Higginbotham was not told of the error until a week after he had been convicted and sent to jail without bond. Higginbotham wants to appeal, but the court reporter failed to keep a trial record during several of the prosecution’s key witnesses.
Mayor Higginbotham has been denied bail at every turn since his conviction — a consequence usually reserved for violent offenders and flight risks — and he’s been sitting in jail for nearly a year awaiting final sentencing.
This isn’t right. Please join us in calling on District Attorney Paxton to drop all charges against Bobby Higginbotham and to allow his release on bond pending an appeal — and when you do, please ask your friends and family to join the effort. It takes just a moment:
Thanks and Peace,
— James, Gabriel, William, Dani, Matt, Natasha and the rest of the ColorOfChange.org team
February 24th, 2011
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1. “Did a White Sheriff and District Attorney Orchestrate a Race-Based Coup in a Northern Louisiana Town?” The Huffington Post, 3-26-2010
3. “Town of Waterproof Advisory Services Report,” Louisiana Legislative Auditor, 8-27-2008
4. See reference 1