Crackdown in the Black Belt: On to Greene County
By Randall Williams
Vol. 7, No. 3, 1985, pp. 2-5
Fifth of July “not guilty” verdicts by a federal jury in Selma have freed the voting rights activists known as the Marion Three. Stymied, for the moment, is the Reagan Justice Department’s effort to help local white officials reverse the electoral gains of black voters in many rural counties of the South since the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
As the Marion (Perry County) defendants were acquitted, trials for five other activists from nearby Greene County began. At this writing, two of these cases have ended with hung juries in federal court in Birmingham.
The various trials and the situations from which they have arisen are complicated, involving multiple-count indictments, scores of witnesses, political infighting, and conflicts between the ideals and realities of voting procedures. Regardless, a central fact is becoming increasingly clear to courtroom observers:
These cases only incidentally involve voting; the real issues are power and control in the parts of the Deep South where black majorities are wresting public offices from
historically entrenched white elites.
For a decade after passage of the Voting Rights Act, black population majorities in Alabama Black Belt counties were not transformed into electoral victories. Greene County was the exception, with blacks capturing all of the county’s elective offices as early as 1968. By 1975, others had begun to catch up. The school boards in the five counties where the FBI has been conducting its voter fraud investigations are good illustrations. In 1975, blacks held all five school board seats in Greene County, but only two of five in Sumter, one of five in Lowndes, and none in Perry and Wilcox. Following the elections of 1984, blacks filled all the school board seats in Sumter, Greene and Wilcox, and four of five in both Perry and Lowndes.
These gains came through hard work and through increasingly sophisticated voter registration efforts by black activists, most recently in conjunction with the Jesse Jackson presidential campaign which proved especially strong in heavily black rural counties.
The outcome of the voting rights revolution in Alabama, has been a bitter factionalization within the Black Belt counties. Lining up on one side have been almost all of the black leadership, the vast majority of black voters, and political organizations like the Perry County Civic League headed by Albert Turner and the Greene County Civic League headed by Spiver Gordon (whose trial begins in October). Within the past couple of years, beginning about the time blacks began winning all the elections, white dominated political action coalitions (commonly referred to as “PAC” or the “Coalition”) emerged in several Black Belt counties. The white leadership of these groups courted blacks to run as candidates who were less objectionable–to whites–than the black activists in the civic leagues.
John Zippert, a white civil rights activist who has worked for more than a decade with the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, describes a leaflet circulated by the PAC in Greene County opposing several measures proposed by the black community for the 1984 elections. Among these were an increase in county tax on parimutuel betting at the white-owned Greene County greyhound racing track; reallocation of some dog track revenues to give funds to organizations directly serving poor and black people; annexation of three predominantly black subdivisions into the city of Eutaw (whites still control thirty-three of forty-two city governments in the Black Belt), and an increase in ad valorem property tax rates in Greene County for the support of the public schools.
All of these measures were in the interest of most black people in Greene County. “After PAC’s initial meetings were held, ” says Zippert, “I learned that PAC had selected a slate of black candidates to run for the county commission and other offices. PAC stated that these candidates were ‘responsible,’ meaning in effect that they would take their direction from powerful white people.”
According to Zippert, the 1984 elections in Greene County came down to a choice between two slates of black candidates. “One slate was supported by the Greene County Civic League, dedicated to pursuing a course of action in the interest of establishing and maintaining effective political participation by low income persons of any race or creed and by blacks who comprise a majority in Greene County who traditionally have been excluded from political participation by whites; the other slate consisted of blacks who had made a deal with the whites and were willing to serve the interests of whites in the county.` Race and racial politics were the dominant factors in the 1984 local elections in Greene County.”
In those elections, both political factions vigorously campaigned and engaged in voter registration, including absentee registration. Neither side had great success recruiting from the other, although blacks in the “coalitions” outnumbered whites aligned with the civic leagues.
Voter registration figures for both blacks and whites in the ten-county Black Belt of west Alabama include dead people, folk who moved away years ago, and voters registered in the county where they live and in the county where they work. The latest figures available are inaccurate, but the relative numbers are nonetheless significant. From the pre-1965 era when there were essentially no registered black voters here, the 1982 registration figures show some 70,000 black voters and 62,000 whites.
The 138 blacks who currently hold public office in these ten counties account for nearly half of the state’s total of elected black officials, which is among the highest in the nation. With increased voter registration and the diminishing of old fears–black fears, that is; whites fear a different
bogeyman and imagine they now hear him scratching at the door–comes the promise of additional black sheriffs, school board members, county commissioners, district attorneys and probate judges. With black political power comes control of county revenues, sufficient clout to secure black participation in government public works contracts and programs, several seats in the Alabama legislature, influence on the outcome of a Congressional seat, and the margin of difference in a close US Senate race.
On July 5, all of these prospects were on the minds of the Marion Three defendants as they embraced. waved to the press, and sang with their families and supporters on the steps of the Selma courthouse soon after the not guilty verdicts and after the courtroom audience had stood to loudly applaud, then cheer the departing jury. Albert Turner, the most prominent of the defendants, renewed his contention that the man with the most to gain from the intimidation of black voters in Alabama is freshman GOP Senator Jeremiah Denton.
The far-right Denton, who voted against the extension of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, who has defended Jerry Falwell’s attack on Desmond Tutu, and whose re-election in 1986 is by no means assured, has branded as a “nefarious lie” Turner’s view that Denton bears a measure of responsibility for the current Justice Department crackdown.
Yet, in several instances over the previous four years, Alabama’s junior Senator has intervened with the Justice Department in Alabama voting rights matters, taking the side of local white powerholders against the interests of black citizens. Too, the offices of the US Attorneys in Alabama now bulge with Reagan appointees made upon the advice of Senator Denton.
Proof of Denton’s involvement in the west Alabama cases is not necessary in order to appreciate the black activists’ fundamental claim that they are being selectively prosecuted as part of a larger effort to thwart the emergence of political power in areas of the rural South. Grassroots black organizers are convinced they are witnessing a second period of Redemption, when whites who have lost local power, as they did during Reconstruction, are using whatever measures they can to displace blacks from the political process. In the view of the Albert Turners of the Black Belt, the Reagan Administration is abandoning the black citizens whom the federal government championed during the Civil Rights movement and is placing its authority and might with the whites who previously held control and who want to again.
A General Accounting Office investigation of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, (based at Epes in Sumter County), is- seen as one recent example of federal pressure being applied after local whites made complaints against the black economic development organization. After several years of intense scrutiny of the Federation’s books turned up no wrongdoing, the investigation was closed, leaving the Federation badly crippled by the constant harassment.
Attorneys representing Union (Alabama) mayor, James Colvin, the first of the Greene County defendants to go on trial in Birmingham this summer, made allegations of similar politically motivated pressure from the Justice Department as they argued a selective prosecution motion.
Ira Burnim, a Southern Poverty Law Center attorney on Colvin’s defense team and the lead counsel in a civil lawsuit filed against the Justice Department (see Southern Changes, May/June 1985), tells of a conversation with Marshall Jarrett of Justice’s Public Integrity Section.
Jarrett made clear to attorney Burnim that the investigation and prosecution,! in Greene County are part of a larger effort by the government not only in the Black Belt of Alabama but in black majority counties of Mississippi. Burnim says there exists a letter from an assistant U.S. attorney general to Utah Senator Orrin Hatch which treats “the problem of voter fraud” as a single interconnected issue. Another Justice Department official has said that the investigations were brought on by “arrogance on the part of blacks.”
As arrogance is not yet a federal crime, the government needed other charges to place before grand juries. In the summer of 1984, Justice Department officials–including William Bradford Reynolds and Stephen Trott–devised a new policy for federal investigations of election offenses which, in effect, enabled federal prosecutors to target black civil rights activists in Southern black majority counties. The FBI was ordered to Greene and the other Black Belt counties prior to the September 1984 elections to collect evidence. Judging by the testimony during Colvin’s trial, practically every citizen in the town of Union must have been interviewed by the FBI Colvin’s defense lawyers found it curious that the federal agents uncovered evidence of alleged wrongdoing only by people affiliated with the Greene County Civic League.
In a single summer’s day of interviews with voters in Greene County, Colvin’s defense team investigators identified eight fraudulent ballots, four fraudulently witnessed ballots, and other election offenses committed by political opponents of those who have been indicted by the government.
“We’re talking about vote fraud involving federal elections and not only members of PAC, but public officials as well,” Burnim maintains.
One person who has lived outside Greene County for years told a defense investigator that he did not vote in last September’s Democratic primary or primary run-off elections in Greene. Yet a ballot affidavit in his name was among the evidentiary materials collected by the US Attorney’s office. The ballot affidavit was notarized by a white Greene
County public official who is a known supporter of the PAC.
After the September 1984 elections, FBI agents interrogated voters to determine if campaigners for the Greene County Civic League had cast fraudulent ballots. Meanwhile, Civic League leaders turned over to the US Attorney’s office evidence of similar alleged misconduct by their opponents in PAC. No PAC campaigners or officials have been implicated in the Justice Department investigation.
Burnim tells of numerous PAC-related incidents which an intense federal investigation should have uncovered. In one instance, an FBI agent approached a voter whose name and address appeared on two absentee ballots cast in the election. The voter identified her ballot, but told the FBI she had never seen the second ballot, which was witnessed by the signatures of two PAC supporters. The FBI apparently never questioned the two individuals who had signed the ballot.
Under Alabama law, it is illegal (indeed, it is so written on the ballot) for candidates to witness absentee ballots or give assistance to voters. Yet Burnim presented the court with evidence of several instances where PAC candidates were witnessing absentee ballots. None of those voters were interviewed by the FBI.
Other selective prosecution evidence presented by Colvin’s attorneys included cases of persons voting absentee who lived outside Greene County and were thus ineligible to vote. One person whose name appeared on an absentee ballot notarized by a public official affiliated with PAC told defense investigators he not only did not request to vote in Greene County but was registered in another state at the time of the election. The public official notarizing this ballot was not indicted.
Much of the evidence of PAC violations paralleled material which had been delivered to the Justice Department last fall by members of the Greene County Civic League, yet apparently none of it had been followed up by the FBI. “Is it not startling,” asks Burnim, “that all of the indictments have been against Greene County Civic League leaders when it took us just three days to uncover vote fraud by PAC? Wouldn’t it be striking if we can find misconduct on both sides and the government cannot?”
In a written opinion denying Burnim’s selective prosecution motion, a federal magistrate concluded that in terms of judicial resources the US attorney might be justified in indicting the Greene County defendants while not pursuing the complaints against PAC because the number of incidents revealed in the three-day defense investigation was less than the number gathered by the eight-month FBI investigation.
A more realistic assessment is that the Reagan Justice Department is cooperating with local whites intent on reversing and dismantling the black movement for democratic political empowerment.
This article is based on reporting by Southern Changes editors Allen Tullos and Randall Williams and on articles published in the Green County Democrat. Previous articles in this series have appeared in Southern Changes for March/April and May/June, 1985.