50 years later, lamenting state of Civil Rights Division

Former Justice Department civil rights lawyer John Doar in 1974.
Former Justice Department civil rights lawyer John Doar in 1974.

WASHINGTON — The first flare-ups of civil unrest were spreading across the segregated South in early 1961 as newly appointed Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy sat hunched over a map of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

Justice Department civil rights chief Burke Marshall and his top deputy, John Doar, told Kennedy that the pins in the map marked counties and parishes where the department had opened investigations or sued to protect blacks' right to vote.

At age 85, Doar vividly recalls Kennedy's reaction: "That's too slow. I want pins all over the map."

So began one of the most remarkable chapters in the Justice Department's history.

In interviews marking the 50th anniversary Friday of the law creating the Civil Rights Division, Doar and others from those days offered a glimpse of how a committed cadre of attorneys helped spur profound social change.

Seizing the momentum of Dr. Martin Luther King's push for racial equality after a century of post-Civil War lethargy, they traveled back-country roads to gather facts for 70 voting rights suits, watched over hostile Southern sheriffs and stepped between rock-throwing demonstrators and gun-toting cops.

Working at a fever pitch, they helped change the face of America.

Those early triumphs over often-violent Southern resistance to integration and to voting rights for blacks established the division's resolve to enforce the law in the face of political pressure.

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.

Marshall and 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, 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.

Doar, a native of the all-white town of New Richmond, Wis., who became a giant in the civil rights movement, said there was "no better lawyer in the land" than Marshall, calling him a brilliant legal strategist and field commander. He said Marshall, who died in 2003, would "look ahead and make cold, careful judgments" that limited violence.

Doar said he knew that Southern congressional Democrats pressured Marshall and Kennedy to back off, but "it didn't matter. The line of authority was very short and very straight" from Marshall to the attorney general to the president.

"If we presented a factual situation that required law enforcement," he said, "we got backed. There was no burying anything."

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.

But case-by-case enforcement of voting rights laws — even suing to force states to stop using intelligence tests and poll taxes — wasn't getting enough blacks to the polls.

"When one device used to deny blacks the equal opportunity to register to vote was struck down, a new one was raised," said Stephen Pollak, who succeeded Doar in 1967.

Doar said the Justice Department's efforts, civil rights marches and King's crusade reached "a critical mass." From 1964 to 1968, President Lyndon Johnson won congressional passage of landmark civil rights laws strengthening voting rights and prohibiting discrimination in public accommodations, private employment and housing.

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.

As the division took on new challenges over ensuing decades, including shielding women and disabled people from bias, its staff mushroomed from 15 lawyers and a few secretaries in the late 1950s to more than 500 staffers.

In testimony to Congress last month, civil rights chief Wan Kim hailed the division's recent "outstanding accomplishments" and "many record levels of enforcement," including suits to stop religious and sex discrimination and housing bias against the disabled.

Days later, Kim resigned, following former acting civil rights chief Bradley Schlozman out the door. Schlozman had been a central figure in the scandal over allegations of partisanship that also led to the resignation of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales last week.

Doar declined to comment on the Bush administration's civil rights performance, but others among the division's pioneering leaders worry about damage to its legacy.

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."

Pollak 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."

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