UNCIVIL WRONGS AND CIVIL RIGHTS
On November 12, 1992, during the waning days of the Bush Administration, the federal prosecutor in the northern district of Alabama sent a brief, churlish letter to a lawyer working for Birmingham Mayor Richard Arrington. The federal investigation of Arrington, U.S. Attorney Jack Selden announced, was over. "Based on a thorough evaluation of the evidence," he wrote, "the Public Integrity Section and the Tax Division of the Department of Justice determined, with my concurrence, that prosecution should be declined."
Considering the full circumstances, the response of Birmingham's first black mayor to Selden's letter was extraordinarily restrained. "As I have stated repeatedly throughout this protracted investigation, I have never engaged in any crime or wrongdoing," Arrington said in a brief announcement.
Thus ended, an amazing on-again-off-again string of federal investigations of Arrington that had begun two decades before with the racist paranoia of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and then been resurrected by the Republican political operatives who seized control of the federal government in Alabama with the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan.
The full story of the Justice Department's unwarranted pursuit of Mayor Arrington -- a former biology professor and main stream political figure -- is by itself a repellant tale of unjustified official harassment. But, when considered along with the government's flawed attacks on a half dozen civil rights activists in Birmingham and other parts of Alabama, the combined events suggest something even more ugly: a systematic and partly successful effort by conservative white Alabamians to harness the enforcement muscle of the Justice Department for the purpose of subduing the black Democratic politicians who challenged their domination of the state.
So far, no single memorandum describing this log-lived effort, has been located. Quite likely, none was written. Of course the federal officials who were responsible for the Arrington investigations and the other, even more noisome, acts insist that partisan, racial and class calculations had nothing to do with their ugly guerrilla war. And many thoughtful Americans, imbued with a sense of idealism about how their Justice Department sometimes has worked to protect the basic rights of individual Americans, shrink from considering the disturbing ease with which the Justice Department over the years has pursued other goals.
"During a good part of my working life, many of my friends and I have regarded the Civil Rights Division as the crown jewel of the Justice Department," said Mark Lynch, a highly regarded Washington lawyer who for many years was on the staff of the American Civil Liberties Union.
At one level, Lynch's point is well taken. Few Americans doubt that the Justice Department's enforcement effort under the Voting Rights Act of 1965 -- leading to the enfranchisement of black voters across the south -- was a major, essential, and even glorious event in American history. Similarly, a strong majority of the American people agree on the critical importance, both in real and symbolic terms, of the Department's complex campaign against segregated public services and facilities.
As Lynch acknowledges, however, when the Justice Department's short-term and long-term civil rights record is carefully scrutinized, an optimistic reading of the Civil Rights Division must, at a minimum, be carefully qualified. One essential distinction to keep in mind is that the Civil Rights Division is only one part of the Justice Department and the two institutions have very different records. The department's performance in Alabama -- encompassing the activities of senior officials in Washington, the state's three federal prosecutors, and the FBI --is just one recent and particularly powerful reason why considerable skepticism is required when it comes to judging the Department's overall civil rights record.
Because the discrete parts of what might be called the Alabama conspiracy were many, and were mostly cloaked in secrecy, the overall pattern of the scheme was not immediately obvious. The true picture began to emerge a few years ago, however, when the government, in response to a request under the Freedom of Information Act by Mayor Arrington, provided him 292 pages of his 518-page FBI file.
Among the most interesting parts were a set of 16 heavily-censored pages concerning a secret FBI investigation of Arrington that had been started more than 20 years ago, on January 26, 1972. The FBI said an additional 40 pages of this particular section of his file were being withheld. The bureau justified both the censorship and the withholding on a number of legal grounds, including the need to protect the identity of confidential sources.
Arrington was the brilliant son of sharecroppers who had gone on to earn his doctorate in biology and become a college professor. At the time the FBI's original investigation began, he was the director of the Alabama Center for Higher Education, a consortium of Alabama's black colleges, and had just been elected to the
Birmingham City Council. In those day, of course, Birmingham was special: probably the south's most segregated city, the place where Public Safety Director Eugene "Bull" Connor would shock the world by unleashing snarling police dogs and violent streams of water on peaceful, young and mostly black demonstrators.
Although most of the notations on the 16 pages have been blacked out, it appears that with Arrington's election, the FBI concluded that the new councilman in this relatively small southern city had been magically transformed into a national leader of a dangerous "black-extremist organization." The reward for the FBI's mystifying decision to elevate him to this exclusive brotherhood was that Arrington became the target of the FBI's formal and highly secret program to "track, expose, disrupt, misdirect, discredit, or otherwise neutralize the activities of black nationalist, hate-type organizations and their groupings, their leadership, spokesmen, membership and supporters, and to counter their propensity for violence and civil disorder."
As noted in a later chapter on the Justice Department and its handling of national security problems, every federal court that considered the merits of the FBI's various COINTELPRO (Counter-Intelligence Program) projects has concluded that they were unlawful. The statutory responsibility of the FBI, after all, is to investigate specific criminal acts, not to disrupt, misdirect, discredit and neutralize individuals who are criticizing various aspects of life in the United States.
According to the decisions of several appellate courts, the COINTELPRO projects aimed at black activists had another repugnant feature. "The blatant racial overtone of the FBI program, coupled with the plaintiffs' various organizational efforts, make clear the entanglement of race and politics that characterized the implementation of the COINTELPRO conspiracy," said one such critical decision.
This general condemnation is reinforced by the specifics of the Arrington case. At precisely the same time that the FBI made Arrington a COINTELPRO target, the newly elected councilman had become a vocal critic of the brutal way the Birmingham Police Department was then treating many Afro-American citizens. He also was directly involved in a strenuous and intensely resented effort to persuade the city to improve its employment and promotion policies for black Americans.
The highly censored documents the FBI provided Arrington do not disclose whether the bureau initiated the kinds of actions against him that it routinely employed against other COINTELPRO targets. The documents do not show, for example, whether the FBI sent out slanderous unsigned letters designed to disrupt Arrington's budding political career or break up his marriage or destroy his credit rating. Nor do they show if FBI agents provided unscrupulous reporters with incorrect or misleading information designed to undermine his reputation. At the very minimum, however, all persons rated as "key black activists" were subjected to intense surveillance which resulted in the writing of FBI reports that were then shared with the Secret Service, military intelligence units and the appropriate federal prosecutor.
On August 8, 1972, for example, the FBI dispatched such a report about Arrington to the United States attorney in Birmingham. In the copy of the report provided Arrington, all the substantive details have been obscured. The censors, however, kindly left untouched a mystifying official claim that any disclosure of the information contained in the original report on City Councilman Arrington "could be prejudicial to the defense interests of the United States."
Even before Arrington had become an official COINTELPRO target, however, the whole project had begun to unravel. One key event in its eventual demise was the March 1971 burglary of an FBI office in Media, Pa., during which a number of embarrassing COINTELPRO documents were stolen by a group of political activists and subsequently leaked to reporters. Then, in May 1972, came the death of J. Edgar Hoover, the program's principal architect. Though manipulative FBI actions to foil political activism did not completely disappear from the FBI's bag of tricks after Hoover's death, the post-Watergate leaders of the Justice Department established new and far more restrictive guidelines to control them. One development outside the control of justice Department which surely contributed to the end of COINTELPRO was the growing strength of Afro-American voters. With their increasing voice in the elective politics of America, the demonstrations and sit-ins that had so upset the authoritarian mindset of Hoover and the governors, mayors, and police chiefs of the South began to decline.
THE REAGAN ADMINISTRATION
Arrington's days as an FBI target, however, were far from over. The former college professor was thrust back under the FBI-Justice Department microscope by three separate political events that had no apparent connection with any criminal or national security concerns of the government. First, in November 1979, Arrington was elected the mayor of Birmingham. Second, exactly one years later, a right-wing Vietnam War hero named Jeremiah Denton was elected to the United States Senate. Third, in the same election, Denton's fellow Republican, Ronald Reagan, captured the White House.
Within months of their election, Senator Denton selected and President Reagan approved three new United States attorneys for Alabama. Frank Donaldson became the federal prosecutor in the Northern District of Alabama (Birmingham), John C. Bell the prosecutor in the Middle District (Montgomery), and Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III in the Southern District (Mobile).
For awhile, it appears, there was a lull in the Justice Department's interest in Arrington. But then, with increasing ferocity, the United States Attorney for Alabama's northern district and the FBI agents in the Birmingham area once again focused their official gaze on city's mayor. The official records obtained by Arrington show the FBI initiated the first of its new wave of investigations in 1984. The FBI undertook a second and third investigation in 1985 and 1986, three in 1987, one in 1988, three more in 1989 and a final probe in 1990.
Given the amazing number of FBI investigations of Mayor Arrington between 1984 and 1990, the campaign obviously was not a casual, unplanned series of unrelated events. And given the government's complete failure to charge him with a single crime --and the final 1992 clearance letter -- it's also impossible to believe that the campaign was anything but a political vendetta.