“Today, Jarvious Cotton cannot vote because he, like so many black men in the United States, has been labeled a felon and is currently on parole.” (Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow (2010) at p. 1.) That is a frustrating and misleading way to start a frustrating and misleading book. And the worst part isn’t the unnecessary use of the passive voice (Cotton “has been labeled”), and it isn’t the fact that a parolee was denied voting rights. I hadn’t even thought about the latter much, before picking up this book. No, it’s Alexander’s characterization of Cotton as having lost his voting rights when someone “labeled” him a felon.
Cotton was not labeled a felon by the establishment, “The Man,” a racist cop, or some other bogeyman. He committed a felony. No one did anything to him. He did it to himself. He broke the rules and got caught. Alexander tries to take the focus off Cotton, as if losing his voting rights happened to him in the same way that you happen to get rained on, or in the same way that you happen to catch a cold. That is just not the case, and it’s a dishonest way to start your book.
What Jarvious Cotton Did to Lose His Voting Rights.
On March 12, 1982, Robert Irby was with some friends outside the city auditorium in Natchez, Mississippi. Irby was a popular 17-year-old student football star and the son of a prominent banker. The Natchez Pilgrimage tableaux was being held. Irby and his friends were approached by Jarvious Cotton and Terry Johnson. The two men were friends. “When we was hanging together,” Johnson said, “I put my education with his street knowledge.” Johnson was 15 at the time. He said he was high on marijuana and codeine.
Cotton and Johnson brandished a gun and demanded money. The men got about $21 from Irby and his friends, and turned to run away. Irby ran after them. Cotton turned around and shot Irby dead. According to Johnson, Cotton fired three times. The first two shots hit Irby in the legs. The fatal shot hit Irby below the ear. Cotton said, “He wants to be a hero. There’s another dead soldier.”
Cotton and Johnson fled to a car. The getaway driver was a third man, Anthony Gerald Jackson, who drove them out of state to Louisiana.
Jarvious Cotton’s mother Audrey had ten children. Jarvious was the fourth. He used to run away constantly between the ages of 7-12. He had his first brush with the law at age 17, when he was convicted of burglary. After Cotton killed Irby, he was later caught and held awaiting trial at the Adams County Correctional Center, which is now a private prison. His mother helped him escape from his cell. He fled Mississippi, but she remained and was later convicted herself, as an accessory to his crime.
He remained a fugitive for five years until he was apprehended almost by accident in New York. Specifically, he was arrested for marijuana possession¹ in a New York subway. Officers discovered that he was wanted for murder in Mississippi.
Once Jarvious Cotton was identified as a wanted murderer, Mississippi began proceedings to extradite him. It may surprise you to learn that the Legal Aid Society of Brooklyn fought on behalf of Cotton to prevent his extradition. They fought extradition for almost a year before the New York Court of Appeals unanimously held that Cotton must be returned to Mississippi. Some sources say he was convicted of murder by a jury of his peers. Others say he pled guilty in exchange for a life sentence with the possibility of parole.
Alexander Used Jarvious Cotton to Mislead You.
Cotton lost his right to vote because he killed a teenager. He did not lose his right to vote because the system “labeled” him a felon. The New Yorker has the same problem with Alexander’s opening. The Boston Review sums up my feelings nicely.
“Alexander’s passive construction—Cotton “has been labeled a felon”—suggests that he had no choice in the matter. The compelling arguments against felon disenfranchisement would lose none of their force if Alexander were to acknowledge Cotton’s crime, but she never does.”
Alexander’s language has actually misled people. Even though we know Cotton was convicted of murder, college students who read this book do not. For example, students at Cal. State Long Beach were asked to read the introduction and write about it on a message board. One of them said, “Lastly is Jarvious who is also denied the right to vote because he is on parole for being charged with a drug conviction.” Nope, he killed a teenager.
If an author cannot be trusted in small things, she probably cannot be trusted in large things either. If Alexander was willing to try to pass of Cotton as a victim of the system rather than a the worst kind of criminal, what other things is she trying to pass off? Alexander is a loud voice for sentencing reform. She should not discredit the arguments of the movement by deceiving her audience about the facts.
Notes and Annotations
Why can’t felons vote? There are good reasons for this rule. In a nutshell, if you aren’t willing to follow the law, you shouldn’t get to make the law for everyone else.
Cotton will vote when he’s off parole: Jarvious Cotton served his time for murder and was released on parole to Adams County Mississippi. Mississippi denies voting rights to parolees. But Cotton will regain his voting rights once he completes his term of parole.
California has the same rule as Mississippi: a felon is stripped of his right to vote while she is incarcerated and on parole. But when the term of parole is complete, her voting rights are returned. People incarcerated in county jail, which includes felons, can vote.
Here’s a newspaper article discussing the case.
Here’s a thoughtful perspective on Alexander’s use of Jarvious Cotton in her argument that the criminal justice system has created a racial case. Jarvious Cotton chose to commit a crime, whereas slaves and southern blacks during Jim Crow did not choose to be victimized and oppressed.
You can read court opinions about Cotton’s extradition that include the facts of his case. (See People ex rel. Neufeld on Behalf of Cotton v. Commissioner of New York City Dept. of Correction (1988) 71 N.Y. 2d 881 [describing Cotton as an accessory].)
After his conviction, Cotton became a jailhouse lawyer. He sued Mississippi prison officials asking for money to compensate him for having to prove his legal mail did not contain drugs. He sued over a leaky roof, and over the decision to deny him parole. He brought so many bogus suits that the Fifth Circuit barred him from filing more. You can read a detailed account of his life after conviction here.
¹To me, the fact that Cotton was apprehended for possession of marijuana is the most ironic part of his story. Alexander argues that enforcement of drug laws should be ended, because they are used to create a new racial caste system. Jarvious Cotton shows that real life does not fit this argument. Or we can go farther; Alexander’s own examples don’t fit this argument. Because in Jarvious Cotton’s case, enforcement of a minor drug law led to the apprehension of a murderer. We could speculate that since Cotton was apprehended on the subway, that he may have been arrested as part of “stop and frisk” enforcement, or broken windows policing. In other words, the enforcement practices that Alexander criticizes successfully identified and arrested a murderer, an extremely positive result. And she still turned around and used Cotton as an example in her book, secure in the knowledge that only a tiny number of people would ever care enough to dig deeper.
So glad this article was written!! I actually wrote to Alexander several years ago. Of course, I got no reply! Depicting a murderer as a victim of our society is wrong!!! He didn’t lose his right to vote because of his color he lost his right to vote because he killed an innocent young boy. Her book portrayed him as a hero, a victim, and related his case to Jim Crow. I grew up with Bobby Irby and saw the aftermath of racial divides following his death. In a nutshell Jarvious Cotton committed a heinous crime in cold blood. By doing that he relinquished his right to vote…it didn’t matter what race he was…he chose to commit the crime…he’s not a hero, he’s not a Jim Crow, he’s not a victim…shame on Alexander for trying to portray him as such!!
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Jarvious Cotton should have his rights restored, when Bobby Irby can exercise his rights. Anyone who is convicted of murder or manslaughter should never have their rights restored. Nothing to do with race, has to do with victims not being able to exercise their rights…
Yet you never once talk about the lack of educational and work opportunity afforded to black men and women. Opportunities still lacking today. I got news for you, I stole to eat too. Whatever his motivation, you showed no evidence proving Jarvious was the actual shooter either and how many are sitting in prison now innocent or over sentenced?
I like vex down the street from Blue Irby. He was one of my best friends. I saw him that night laying in the street. How you can say there is no evidence that Cotton was the perpetrator is laughable. Two other friends of mine who accompanied Bobby that night and were victims of the robbery and witnesses to Bobby’s murder identified Cotton as the shooter. So shit your damn mouth because you know nothing.
I’m not going to argue with you and no one else. I don’t owe you nothing. I just know Jarvious is not the killer and God will let that light shine. What happen to your friend is heart breaking and at terrible I don’t deny. It’s hard to loose someone ,I lost my son. But arguing about this is pointless when a person has their mind made up. So Have a blessed day.
Wow you telling some one to shut their dam mouth. How professional of you. The system gets it wrong all the time. Witness identification is one of the worse when it comes to picking out the perpetrator. People are sent to prison all the time unjustly mostly black people. So unless you were stand there and saw Jarvious Cotton kill anyone you can’t say nothing. Just like George Floyd with the knee on his neck I guess he deserved what happened to him. The killer is walking free and it is not Jarvious Cotton. So you need to know facts. I have those facts and evidence to back it up. No one is questioning the senseless killing of the young man its the person who actually did the shooting that is in question. So please get your panties out of that bunch they are in. Because the truth will be reveal and I wonder what will be said.God bless
Most of the people on here talking about Jarvious Cotton being the murderer dont have all the facts of his case. Jarvious was not the killer in fact he was never there. His so called best friend is who did this crime and is responsible for this poor childs life being taken. Jarvious wasnt even there. And soon this all will be revealed. So Alexandra knew what she was doing when she wrote this book. You all only put what was printed but when the truth comes out like the central park five and all of the other innocent people accused of crimes they did not committ . I would like to see what opinions you will have then. Race is always the issue.
If he was not there then why would the person who witnessed the murder of his friend lie, and if he did that would not be racist because the witness was black.
He did not witness any murder. The people on here assuming about a person dint know. There is a such thing as wrongful incarceration. I should know I am a victim of the same thing. I am the first woman to be exonerated from deathrow in the United States for a murder I never committed. My life was taken from me for nothing. And the same thing happened to Jarvious. He was beat into a confession. So you can not speak to actual events. Because you were not there just what that rascist town had on paper . Sthe same way they had lies on paper about me.
How do you know the witness? The witness may have been coerced in to saying this. The cops back then wanted to close a case and they did not care how. Jarvious mother had nothing to do with the case but was victimized because she was his mother. Those small towns in Mississippi have a rascist component. And most states have. This is a fact.
You are insane. Two witnesses to Bobby’s murder identified Cotton as the killer. I grew up with Bobby- he was my neighbor. The two witnesses that identified the murderer Cotton were also friends of mine. He did it. I wish I could se him.
Yes this is very misleading they teach one way. And a lot of people think that’s okay. This is why we have so many innocent people in prison today because people are so quick to judge and say someone did something when it turns out they did not. Im not trying to make any one mad or whatever but I speak facts and someone who is involved in the case.
“Race is always the issue”.
Of course…because people like you MAKE it “the issue”. Were you there when this murder was committed? Did you witness this shooting? If not, why should anyone believe you when two people who WERE there identified Cotton as the shooter?
According to two recent polls a majority of people have had a gut full of your “race card”. For myself it expired with the OJ Simpson verdict.
Hi Kimball Dimmick,
I am writing to see if you have found any information on the Jarvious Cotton case besides the newspaper article you site in your blog post? In my quick Google search I havent found anything about the murder case to confirm the story?
Check out the other links in the post. I also just added a link to another newspaper article in the notes section that has more information on the facts.
Currently had to read this book for college sociology, and watch a lecture film on the same issue. The entire course has been as misleading as the article in question here – it is disgusting and poisoning the minds of my fellow classmates that do not investigate any further into the readings the school requires of them.
Because people look a like to people all the time. And there was a vendetta to fill this is why. Nevertheless believe what you want the truth will come out it’s truly time.