Posted by: mutantpoodle | September 5, 2007

Justice Denied

Freedom Riders Bus - Anniston, Alabama

Freedom Riders Bus - Anniston, Alabama, 1961

50 years ago, Congress passed and President Eisenhower signed the Civil Rights Act of 1957, which created the Civil Rights division of the Justice Department and the mechanism – injunctive relief in the Federal Courts – to enforce voting and other civil rights cases.

Today, McClatchy publishes a Greg Gordon piece in which veterans of the division’s early, bravest years, talk about the early days and lament what has happened to it under Bush II.

But first, to get a sense of what those years were like:

[Thurgood] Marshall and [Robert] Kennedy thought that expanding voting rights was the key to breaking what had become a “caste system,” with blacks stuck at the bottom and Southern mayors, sheriffs, county registrars and even judges entwined in a culture that kept them there, [John] Doar said. He said the division’s strategy was to give blacks enough political clout to force change.

“Politicians, they learn quick,” said Doar, one of the last survivors of those years. “When they think they’re going to get voted out of office, they change.”

In 1959, the department already had sued Macon County, Ala., where all but 18 of the 2,818 voting-age whites were registered but only 1,110 of the 8,493 voting-age blacks had been found qualified.

“They were simply rejecting blacks as unqualified, when they were qualified,” said Brian Landsberg, author of two books on the division’s civil rights enforcement.

Marshall began suing other counties where few blacks were able to vote, starting with Dallas County, Ala., where only 156 of 15,115 blacks were registered in April 1961….

Most of the department’s lawsuits fared poorly in federal court. But the appellate section headed by Harold Greene, who later became the federal judge who broke up AT&T, repeatedly got those dismissals reversed before the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

As the confrontations escalated, Kennedy, Marshall, Doar and the White House demonstrated resolve again and again. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy stood up to Mississippi Gov. Ross Barnett, sending thousands of deputy federal marshals and soldiers to prevent violence as James Meredith became the first black to enroll in the University of Mississippi.

Doar personally prosecuted a sniper who fatally shot civil rights worker Viola Liuzzo in 1965 in Alabama and the Klansmen who murdered three civil rights workers in 1964 in Mississippi. The cases marked the first federal civil-rights trials in which all-white juries convicted white defendants of killing blacks….

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 empowered the division to dispatch federal examiners to take over registration in recalcitrant counties and to send monitors to ensure that all eligible voters could cast ballots.

The strategy worked: The law led to the ouster of figures such as Dallas County Sheriff Jim Clark, who wore a “Never” button to signify his opposition to desegregation, and to the registration of a million blacks over the next decade in the Deep South.

And that doesn’t even begin to hint at the violence and danger of the work, or the courage of those who did it.

Today, of course, the reputation of the Department of Justice – at least among people not at Fox News or on the GOP Payroll – is deeply diminished. And the Civil Rights Division has been decimated:

Several of these former civil rights lawyers expressed fears that the Bush administration has tainted the division’s legacy by rolling back voting rights enforcement, bringing few employment discrimination lawsuits on behalf of African-Americans and diverting appellate lawyers to immigration cases. The Senate Judiciary Committee will conduct a hearing Wednesday to observe the 50th anniversary and hear concerns from civil rights leaders that the division has become partisan, allegedly trampling on minorities’ rights rather than protecting them….

Landsberg challenged the department’s support for state voter-identification laws, which Republicans say are needed to curb fraud but that critics charge are aimed at suppressing the votes of poor minorities, who lean Democratic.

“If what is going on is pursuing a partisan political agenda, that’s obviously inappropriate and maybe illegal,” he said. “It’s supposed to be a law enforcement agency and not an arm of the Republican National Committee.”

Landsberg, now a professor at Pacific University’s McGeorge School of Law, called it unusual that the division has created a special counsel for religious discrimination, noting that none exists for racial discrimination. Meanwhile, he said, few voting-rights suits have been filed on behalf of African-Americans.

“If you were to look around the country and say, `Where are the problems of discrimination?’ . . . religion would not be the first place you would look. The main religious discrimination you would find these days is against Muslims, and I don’t know that this office is doing anything to protect their rights.”

[Stephen] Pollak [Deputy Chief of the Civil Rights Division after John Doar] said that if he could set the priorities, he’d focus more on race, national origin and gender.

“There may well be appropriate religious-discrimination cases to bring,” Pollak said, “but I would never think that they would be a dominant or major activity of the division in the United States as I know it.”

David Rose, who became the division’s first employment-section chief in 1969 and oversaw enforcement suits that ended segregation in labor unions, said that under Bush, the section “has been devastated.”

Many of its veteran lawyers have quit because they weren’t allowed to police workplace discrimination vigorously, he said.

“I feel very badly,” said Rose, now 76. “I had been always very proud to be from the Civil Rights Division. … It’s been a disaster.”

In all the back and forth about US Attorneys and politicization, people often forget that the organization being discussed is the Department of Justice. This year’s anniversary reminds us that there was a time when the department’s name was its mission.

All you have to do is look at the obscenity of that name being used to suppress so-called “voter fraud” (otherwise known as “voting while black”), and you can see how far we are from actually having a Department of Justice today.

Over the last half-century, a combination of laws that required justice and their vigorous enforcement helped alter the lay of the legal land and, to some degree, the consciousness of Americans as well. It didn’t do it alone – the Civil Rights movement, and the often hideous, violent response to its demands for fairness, made a searing impression on people who might have preferred to look away – but it made a statement, when people more readily believed their government, about what was right.

This is not to say that it fixed all of our problems by any stretch of the imagination, but we – as a society – were pushed toward being a better place. First, injustices became wrong by statute. Over time, they were viewed as wrong in most of our hearts.

“The arc of history is long, but bends toward justice,” said Dr. Martin Luther King.

And it does, unless people who are its custodians start bending it back.

[Freedom Riders Bus burning in Anniston, Alabama on May 4, 1961]

[Updated to include McClatchy link…oops!]

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