Joann Bell’s children tell a story that seems emblematic of their mother. She was driving her kids to school when she glanced out the window and spotted four preteen boys beating up a younger boy.
Bell slammed on the brakes and rushed to the boy’s rescue. Amid the scuffle, one of the boys inadvertently hit her in the face.
“I ended up with a black eye,” Bell said, laughing at the memory. “My kids like to tell that story about how mom stopped a fight and ended up with a huge black eye.”
It would not be the last punch that Bell would take. But the diminutive woman has managed to throw a few blows of her own, too, standing up for what she believes.
As executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Oklahoma affiliate, Bell has been on the front lines of some of the most divisive controversies in arguably the most culturally conservative state in the country. When New Lima school officials in 1992 sponsored Bible study in class, the ACLU took them to court. When Oklahoma City police in 1997 deemed an Oscar-winning film, “The Tin Drum,” to be child pornography and seized videos of the film, the ACLU took them to court. When Haskell County commissioners in 2004 erected a Ten Commandments monument on the courthouse lawn, the ACLU took them to court.
Bell and the ACLU have not lacked for battles in the courtrooms or in courts of public opinion.
“We have just one agenda here, and that’s to protect people’s rights and the Bill of Rights,” Bell said. “You have to have a sense of humor to work for the ACLU in Oklahoma. You have to laugh. You’ve got to have fun defending civil liberties in the Bible Belt or you’re not going to make it.”
After more than 20 years, Bell is stepping down. She has announced her retirement in March. A search for her successor is under way by the chapter’s board of directors.
Bell leaves behind a considerable legacy. When she took the leadership reins in 1990, the office had only $350 in the bank and was five months past due on its rent. It now boasts about 2,000 members and is housed in a building it owns in the Paseo District. While the affiliate remains a small one, it continues to thrive, however improbably, as a tenacious fighter in the never-ending battle over civil liberties.
“She’s part Norma Rae, part Erin Brockovich,” said longtime ACLU Oklahoma board member Randy Coyne.
“She’s a tremendous lady whose stature far exceeds her physical height. She’d be easy to underestimate, and you would underestimate her at your peril.”
TRIAL BY FIRE
Bell’s introduction to the acrimony over civil liberties issues came in 1981. She was a wife and mother living in the tiny school district of Little Axe, east of Norman, when she learned school officials were pressuring her children to attend prayer meetings during school. Bell complained to school administrators, but to no avail.
Then a school board member sarcastically suggested she call the ACLU.
Bell decided to do just that. Represented by Norman attorney Micheal Salem, she filed a federal lawsuit against the school district in May of 1981.
What followed was nothing short of a personal nightmare for Bell. She received threatening phone calls and letters. A female cafeteria worker for the school pummeled Bell and sent her to the hospital. After the attacker was convicted in a jury trial, the Little Axe softball team held a fundraiser to pay for the woman’s legal costs.
Things grew even worse. In September of 1981, Bell’s trailer house burned to the ground in an arson fire.
“The firemen that came were from the volunteer Little Axe Fire Department and two of the volunteer firemen served on the school board,” recalled Bell. “They didn’t bring any water. They brought tanker trucks. ‘Oops we’re out of water.’” Salem said his client’s resolve never wavered.
“That would have been enough to discourage a lot of people,” he said.
“For Joann, there was never any discussion about giving up the case. Never. I would think anybody who lost everything in a fire would think, at least under those circumstances, ‘maybe I’m not a crusader.’ For Joann, I think it just strengthened her belief that she was right.”
A federal court ruled in favor of Bell and co-plaintiff Lucille McCord in 1984. The school district filed an appeal but lost a year later. Bell had since moved out of Little Axe.
PLAINTIFF TO LEADER
The Little Axe ordeal drew Bell to the mission of the ACLU. She joined the state chapter as a volunteer and in 1987 became its litigation coordinator. Three years later, she was named executive director.
Bell is especially proud of her work against the death penalty. Among her most memorable efforts, she said, was helping win the freedom of Robert Lee Miller, an Oklahoma City man who in 1988 had been convicted and sentenced to death for the murders of two elderly women.
Miller spent seven years on death row before DNA testing exonerated him. Still, prosecutors refused to concede his innocence. Miller was transferred to Oklahoma County, where he languished for two years, unable to get anyone to take his case.
A letter that Miller wrote to Bell changed that. She visited him in jail.
“He looked at me … and he said, ‘I did not kill those women. I’ve been cleared and I can’t even get a public defender appointed to get me out of here.’ It really bothered me, and we formed a coalition to free Rob.”
A coalition protest outside the Oklahoma County District Courthouse eventually caught the attention of defense attorney Garvin Isaacs, who quickly took Miller’s case. Shortly thereafter, a judge finally let Miller free.
“If there’s one thing I felt really successful about on a personal level, it’s that I pushed constantly to free that man,” Bell said.
Despite her retirement, Bell hopes to organize a speaker’s bureau to help ACLU chapters with fundraising efforts.
After all, she isn’t one for keeping quiet.
“I think that to remain silent is for people to assume you agree,” she said.