There was some confusion initially when PJMedia posted my essay last week — I was first identified as working for the Civil Rights Division rather than for the Civil Rights Commission. That confusion has now been straightened out. The mistake is often made and it is easy to make.
It is also easy for the memory of this old geezer to be triggered by any reference to my work during the original — and real — civil rights movement. Those fragments of memory keep popping up, which is fortunate since I am determined to get them all down in a rational form one of these days in my next book, which is now in a period of gestation worthy of an elephant.
The Civil Rights Division, part of the Justice Department, has the power and the duty to enforce the federal civil rights laws. On the other hand, the Commission has no enforcement power, but it is empowered to investigate and report on denials of equal protection of the laws and denials of the right to vote on the basis of race, religion, or gender. While we in the Commission did not have enforcement powers, there never was any doubt that we were on the side of innocent minority citizens, especially African Americans, and we pushed the envelope of our powers to help their cause and to rid the nation of the horrors of racial segregation and the white violence often used to perpetuate it.
Accordingly, during my many forays into racial trouble spots, I developed the habit of calling the mayor or the chief of police to mention that I was in town in my official capacity, and I would be honored if we could talk about the current racial situation. My hope was that my official presence would provide some small modicum of protection for black residents, especially those brave folks taking to the streets in protests against discrimination.
During the tumultuous protests in Birmingham of 1963, I had my doubts that the infamous police chief Bull Connor would agree to a meeting, but in light of the threatening situation I thought I had to try. As far as I can remember, he took my call and responded with words like: if you’re dealing with civil rights, I don’t want to talk to you. And he hung up.
But he did something else. He apparently immediately called the Civil Rights Division at the Department of Justice in Washington, and managed to get Burke Marshall, then the assistant attorney general in charge of the Division. Burke was an acquaintance of mine, a fine lawyer, and a decent guy. Not long after, Burke related to me, with a twinkle in his eye, that Ol’ Bull thundered to the effect that the next time you send someone down here to talk civil rights to me, teach him to talk dog talk, and I’ll let him talk to my dogs!
Of course, Connor was also confused as to whom I worked for; Burke had not sent me to Birmingham. However, we all got the message and Burke and I had a good laugh about the incident.
Beyond that laugh there are many lessons to be taken from that situation. The Deep South, including the town of Birmingham, was a center of courageous protests against a brutal repressive system. The protesters displayed raw courage, which I observed, and in the process of my observing I was in awe of their courage — of both the foot soldiers and the leaders like Reverends King and Shuttlesworth. Too many protesters lost their lives in that struggle.
I am proud that I along with many other federal officials used our power to support the blacks and to destroy the brutal system of segregation. Burke Marshall and the other lawyers and staff in the Civil Rights Division were sound professional lawyers dedicated to overcoming racial discrimination and segregation. Unlike today, the staff in the Commission and the Division worked well together. As I have already written, I did not find a trace of racial bias among the lawyers or the staff of the Division.
Most importantly: we won. We, all of us fighting together, dedicated officials and citizens alike, beat those evil racist bastards. In Birmingham and the South and indeed in the nation as a whole now, there is no evidence of government sanctioned racial repression.
Sadly, in too many respects the opposite is true. As Christian Adams has documented, a spoils system and a demented racial payback set of institutions has appeared, run by racial racketeers. That is a tragedy, and now we must beat the current crop of racist bastards — and keep striving to realize the dream.
Even after all these years I still believe in the essential goodness of America and Americans, of all races and creeds — and I still believe we can create a society based wholly on merit and not on race or racial preferences.
(Read Part One here.)