Saint Al

Will he die in prison for the sins of the plantation?

There is some set of facts hovering just over the visible horizon having to do with whether Dallas City Councilman Al Lipscomb, 72, is in serious jeopardy of going to prison in his old age. An FBI extortion probe of his role in a Dallas taxicab war apparently has expanded into an investigation of possible bank extortion involving others.

Everybody smart downtown has an opinion about whether that's a problem for the Honorable Al Lipscomb. Nobody really knows.

But everybody who knows anything knows one thing for sure: Al Lipscomb is perceived in the African-American community as a beloved saint. Almost no matter what he's done.

And unless something huge happens in the next few weeks to change that perception, Lipscomb's jeopardy will be a bitter heartache and an object of wrath in black Dallas.

Even people in the community who suspect he may have broken some laws over the years to support himself still believe that he is a saint, that his virtues outweigh his sins many times over, that he should be forgiven and protected.

More poignantly--and more pointedly in view of the city's long, strange history of plantation politics--many people in the black community believe it is the moral duty of the white power structure to see that Al is taken care of, almost no matter what he has done.

Almost.
The almost is the challenge. If Lipscomb goes down, the local political establishment will have a powerful motivation to see that Lipscomb is tarred with some sin horrible enough to overcome the ferocious loyalty of the African-American community.

U.S. Attorney Paul Coggins, who has the last word on whether Lipscomb will be indicted, has two reputations. In his tenure as the region's chief federal prosecutor, he has been viewed as a straight shooter. But it's also clear he might like to run for elective office. His name was floated briefly, for example, in the run-up to the current Texas attorney general campaign.

If the evidence has Lipscomb's name on it, Coggins will prosecute to win. But he might be amenable, in the process, to helping the local power structure with its problem--that is, making sure Lipscomb goes down dirty.

Mere crookedness won't do. The only thing that could stand a chance of muting the community's loyalty to Lipscomb would be evidence of betrayal at a racial level.

The Dallas Observer spoke with many people close to Lipscomb and with four people who have been questioned by the FBI, some of whom are Lipscomb supporters and some of whom are not. People familiar with the questions the FBI is asking told the Observer Lipscomb is angling for a deal while the feds try to persuade him to roll over on somebody worth rolling on.

If Lipscomb snitches on someone big, that might accomplish the twin goals of giving the authorities a trophy while also painting Lipscomb as a traitor to the community, taking the edge off his popular support.

There are problems with that scenario, however. The first is that there are few trophies out there as good as an elected official, and usually you can't trade down. The elected official normally can't get off by rolling on people below him in the food chain.

The second is that it's not going to be easy to find anything to pin on Lipscomb that will really erode his popular support in the black community. His bones are old and deep. The overwhelming sentiment in black Dallas is that Lipscomb, a seventh-term councilman first elected in 1984, has spent his life struggling against a racially corrupt system and that, if he made some mistakes along the way, the true moral responsibility for those mistakes falls on the system and on the rich white people who have always run it.

There is a bitter conviction in black Dallas that if Al Lipscomb goes down or even gets seriously hurt by all this, then the wealthy white people who have used him for decades must be forced to pay some price too.

This isn't a fringe opinion. It's a sentiment echoed across the mainstream of the black community, salted with a healthy dose of conspiracy theory.

"I would be personally saddened, and I would grieve if Mr. Lipscomb were sent to prison, particularly if the real forces behind the system go unnoticed and unpunished," says Charles Stovall, pastor of Camp Wisdom United Methodist Church and local spokesman for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Comer Cottrell--founder and CEO of Proline Corp., a former member of the Dallas Citizens Council, a conservative and a leading voice in national black Republican circles--called the black community's relationship with Lipscomb a "love affair."

Cottrell, who has been allied with Lipscomb in aspects of the taxi wars, says that if Lipscomb goes to prison, the story will end "in the streets. And I'll be out there in the middle of it."

Former city Councilwoman Diane Ragsdale says, "People are fundamentally very angry about this and consider it to be extremely unfair, because we know Councilman Lipscomb has been a servant, an extreme servant to the community.

"Al Lipscomb is loved. He is genuinely loved, and one of the primary reasons is himself. He delivers to people that he genuinely loves them. It's almost divine and spiritual, to be quite frank."

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