By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
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.
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."
Two other black council members, one current and one former, are targets of the same federal probe. But neither Don Hicks, who sits on the council now, nor Sandra Crenshaw, who occupied Lipscomb's seat for one term, elicits anything like the intense emotional support felt for Lipscomb.
It's a feeling that is understood and even shared, in some degree, by people who have dealt with Lipscomb from the other side of the city's racial divide. A former mayor of Dallas, who asked not to be identified, says Lipscomb's position in city politics was always especially perilous because he suffered the one strike even more unacceptable to the white power structure than being black.
He was poor.
"Al was a pauper," the former mayor says. "There was a big, mean, racist system in Dallas in the 1950s and '60s, and black leaders were not permitted to express their feelings.
"Most people in Dallas dealt with the system by staying on their own side of the line. White people lived their lives deep within the white community, and most black people stayed deep within the black community.
"But there was always that edge, that place where the two worlds met. And that's where Al lived. Al was always at the seam."
A pauper at the seam. Ferryman on the River Hate.
To understand the history of racial politics in Detroit or Atlanta or Houston, a cynic might say, "follow the money." Here the cynic would have to say, "follow the groceries."
In 1985, a few months before her death, Juanita Craft, the "Mama of the Civil Rights Movement" in Dallas, struggled out into the dimly lighted front room of her small frame house on Warren Avenue to talk to a writer.
Frail, speaking in a whisper, she told of her role as an NAACP youth organizer in the 1960s. "I was the reason there wasn't violence here," she said. "I kept these young people under control."
She wanted the writer, who was white, to understand that powerful white people downtown knew how important she had been. "They know," she said, with a significant nod of her head. "Mr. Schenkel [Pete Schenkel, CEO of Schepps Dairies] knows. He always makes sure I have eggs and bread and fresh milk. He sends them right to my house."
In Dallas, the traditional Southern commerce of eggs, bread, and small favors--the rope bridge across the racial divide--was unbroken by the turmoil of the 1960s.
"There was no movement per se in Dallas," says Janice Winkley Gore, a longtime leader in the African-American community. "Of all the big cities, this is clearly the city that the movement passed by."
It wasn't that the movement didn't try to penetrate Dallas. And when it did, Al Lipscomb, the pauper, was there to welcome it with open arms, unlike the Dallas black middle class, which shunned the movement like a poison.
In 1970, two years after the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., there was a prolonged and carefully organized boycott of Safeway grocery stories in black Dallas, led by King's organization, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The SCLC accused Safeway of failing to hire any black employees above the level of floor-sweeper and of refusing to do business with a single black vendor.
Peter Johnson, the SCLC organizer who ran the boycott, had mixed feelings at first about Lipscomb.
"Albert was a waiter at one of the private clubs for rich white people downtown," Johnson recalls. "They had him involved in this thing called 'Block Partnership,' which was a creation of the Dallas power structure under the Dallas Council of Churches."
Block Partnership was designed to link people in white North Dallas with people in black South Dallas. Van-loads of earnest churchgoers visited each other's services. Blocks of whites sat in the pews in black churches, and blocks of blacks sat in white churches, like card sections at a football game. Civil rights organizers such as Johnson saw Block Partnership as a make-nice strategy for avoiding change.
"We used to call the Block Partnership the 'fire department,'" Johnson says. "They were there to run around and put out all the fires that we would start."
Those times in Dallas were frightening and genuinely dangerous for black activists in a way that may simply not be fully understandable to people who were not here then.
Former Dallas legislator Paul Ragsdale, then a young social worker just up from Austin, recalls the look and feel of the place: "They still had John Birch Society billboards all over and billboards saying 'Impeach Earl Warren.' Black folk were just overwhelmed with paranoia, talking about how the whites could come in with tanks and seal off South Dallas and kill us all."
But the worst fear activists in the black community had to deal with, because it was the most immediate, was the threat of betrayal from sold-out black power brokers. The most feared of all the sold-out preachers was the Rev. S.M. Wright, who bragged he could get the white boys downtown to yank the mortgage on the church of any preacher who crossed him.
The basic mechanism of racial control was an old Southern tradition. In a centennial history of the Dallas Park Department published in 1976, the author explained how all black institutions in Dallas, from colleges to churches, were ultimately dependent on white power. Therefore the "colored sovereigns," as author Marion Barnett calls them, knew better than ever to lose control of their own people.
"If the Negro leaders were politically astute," Barnett wrote, "they also probably resisted attempts by any local blacks to build a power base, because their influence and their machine power would be feared and hated...and would certainly have resulted in white reprisals."
Of course, there were systems like that in every city in the South into the early 1960s. The peculiarity of Dallas is that the system was still in place well into the 1980s.
In 1987, when Annette Strauss was running for mayor, S.M. Wright was still the principal conduit through which money was passed from white power brokers to the black community, distributed by him through a network of ministers. Lorlee Bartos, a political consultant who helped run Strauss' campaign in 1987, says she was instructed by a top Dallas County Democratic Party official "to just go down and give a check to Rev. Wright."
"That was how the black vote was still handled, even at that time," Bartos says. "Just take the check to Rev. Wright. I was never sure what they got for that. Generally what you get is the right to do the rounds of the churches and stand up in the pulpit and make your pitch."
When Bartos refused to carry "walking-around money" to Wright, she was criticized not by whites but by black power brokers who wondered what was holding up their checks.
"I've been called a racist because I refused to pay walking-around money," she says.
People in the community now speak frankly about Wright and his role. "S.M. was strictly about taking bribes," Cottrell says. "The white power structure protected him."
The loyalty of white power brokers to Wright endured even after his death: He became the first African-American citizen of Dallas to have a freeway named after him, putting him right up there with John Stemmons, whose grandfather came to Dallas to evade arrest by Reconstruction authorities.
Wright's connection to white power in the early 1970s was already clear and frightening. Robert Bowen, a Dallas businessman who was a young SCLC activist in the early 1970s, remembers the Sunday morning he and other organizers attended services at Wright's church, People's Baptist, and rose from the audience afterward to confront him about his ties to white power.
"We were asked to leave," Bowen says. "Somebody looked outside, and the place was surrounded by riot police. There were at least 50 police cars there. We were strictly nonviolent, of course, but S.M. made sure we knew where he stood."
Peter Johnson says the SCLC succeeded in negotiating a hiring and contracting covenant with Safeway, after which he returned to Atlanta. But when he arrived there, breathless SCLC officials told him there had been big trouble the night before back in Dallas, where armed goons had made an assault on his apartment.
"As soon as I got back to SCLC headquarters, Rev. [Ralph] Abernathy was waiting for me, and he said, 'Peter, you better call Dallas.' He said, 'Last night, men in hoods with automatic weapons kicked your doors in and tried to get the people staying there to tell them where you were.'"
Johnson says S.M. Wright had been so infuriated by the SCLC's success with Safeway--an affront to Wright's power--that he had insisted white Dallas power brokers persuade Safeway to abrogate the deal. Even though it had signed a series of covenants with the SCLC, Safeway backed down under pressure from the local Dallas power structure and broke the deal.
"I have always assumed that the business with the men with guns kicking down my doors was arranged by S.M. Wright and the white power structure," he says.
The Rev. Abernathy and the leadership of the SCLC instructed Johnson never to return to Dallas, arguing that the problem there was not so much the hostility of the white power structure as the hostility of the black community.
"We had a meeting, and I convinced them that, if we let a bunch of white minuteman brown-shirts and black Uncle Tom preachers run us out of Dallas, we would never be able to hold our heads up again in any city in the South," Johnson says.
The SCLC relented and allowed Johnson to return. It was in that atmosphere--doors kicked in at night by gun-bearing white men, S.M. Wright angrily fingering the targets--that Johnson, an outsider, went back to Safeway and reinstated the picket lines.
What he needed badly, however, in addition to young movement stalwarts like Bowen and Paul Ragsdale, who had come to Dallas from elsewhere, was someone black from the city itself at his side.
"And that was Albert," Johnson says. "Al Lipscomb was a hero of that battle."
Lipscomb did not merely join the reinstated picket line on impulse. He agreed to travel to Dorchester, Georgia, to attend Septima Clark's famous citizenship education school, making him one of very few African-American activists in Dallas ever to receive the formal civil rights training that imbued the core values and techniques of the national movement.
"When he came back, Al was the captain of our picket line," Johnson says. "For that, we needed somebody who could handle people in a dangerous situation, who could relate to people and speak with a sense of authority, and who was committed to the nonviolent creed."
Johnson says Lipscomb, who was an unknown at the time, took off his waiter garb and stepped into long and tense days at the barricades.
"He showed extreme courage," Johnson says. "There was a tremendous amount of threats and fear. I tell people all the time that I was scared to death all the time then. There were very few black people in Dallas at that time like Al Lipscomb."
Eventually Safeway gave up, closed its stores, and pulled out of South Dallas. Amid accusations from the black community that it had cost South Dallas some good grocery stores, the SCLC pulled out too. The civil rights movement was unable after that to put down enduring roots in Dallas, in large part because of the effective resistance of S.M. Wright and his minions.
And when the movement left town, it left Al Lipscomb behind.
In the decade afterward, Al Lipscomb ran an operation called the South Dallas Information Center (SDIC) out of a small house. The SDIC was an attempt by Lipscomb, a waiter with a limited formal education, to establish his own one-man civil rights movement.
It was really a social ministry, and it was where Al Lipscomb built his original political base among the poorest of the city's African-American citizens. A black person of means, after all, went to S.M. Wright, the community's scary taskmaster and godfather. People who couldn't go to S.M. went to Al.
In the early 1970s, Lipscomb ran for mayor of Dallas. He won few votes. He also allowed his name to be substituted for Peter Johnson's as plaintiff in a lawsuit against the city's at-large council system--a suit Johnson had launched before leaving town. Lipscomb's run for mayor and the lawsuit earned the SDIC some media attention and the beginnings of white liberal money support.
Even though he knew the white power brokers downtown from his waiter days and knew how to handle them once he had a foot in the door--he continues today sometimes to address them by the deferential Mister, as in "Mr. Pete," rather than Pete--he sometimes had to stir up a certain amount of smoke in order to get their attention. In seeking redress for his constituents, he carried many dire warnings of riot and mayhem to the gleaming towers downtown.
"That was the only way back then to get any white response," says Janice Winkley Gore. "The threat of violence. White people responded to the threat. And that was about all they responded to."
He was not necessarily betraying the nonviolent traditions of the movement in which he had been trained. Dr. King relied on violence too. He just counted on the whites to do it, and they seldom disappointed him.
The real difference between the larger movement and what Lipscomb was doing in South Dallas was that the movement, run from above by black intellectuals and supported by a national alliance of organizations, fought for broad issues. Al Lipscomb, with no money and no real organization behind him, didn't have the ability to fight for issues. So he fought for individuals.
"There is no way of counting the people whose kids Al has gotten out of jail," says former Councilwoman Sandra Crenshaw, "or the number of funerals he has attended or the people in need he has gone to visit. He was really more like a preacher than a politician."
The SDIC was his pulpit, Holy Church of the Least of These Brothers of Mine.
During that same period, Lipscomb forsook his career as a waiter and began trying to support himself more independently as a produce merchant in the Dallas Farmers Market, selling fruit and vegetables from the back of a pickup truck. It's an image often sneered at by Dallas whites and blacks alike--this man who would be mayor, hawking beans from the back of a truck.
A core teaching of the civil rights movement, however, lost somewhere on the high seas of affirmative action, was that African-Americans should seek economic independence whenever possible. Vernon Johns, the erudite pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, in the early 1960s--a renowned religious scholar with degrees from the nation's best schools--outraged his own parishioners by showing up in front of the church after services with a truckload of smelly fish, which he mongered loudly while his solidly middle-class flock made their ways to their cars with downcast eyes.
Johns did it for effect, of course. The lesson was that selling fish--or produce--off the back of a truck was better, if it meant freedom from white purse-strings, than a good teaching job at the mercy of a white board of education.
But there were two things wrong with it in Lipscomb's case. The first was that the black community never got it. Even though Lipscomb and others like him opened the doors and fought the battles that the black middle class in Dallas was too timid to attempt, he continued to be shunned and even vilified by them, even after he was elected to the City Council in 1984.
The second thing was that Lipscomb's version of mongering was never far removed from white purse-strings. Two years ago, Lipscomb told Laura Miller, then of the Observer, that one of his main white benefactors, Pete Schenkel of Schepps Dairy, even paid for the produce truck.
Al Lipscomb would not talk to the Observer for this story. Diane Ragsdale called to explain that he could not talk to a reporter because of his legal situation. In February, Lipscomb had received a "target letter" informing him that he was the object of a federal probe. He did not know yet whether he would be indicted.
But a number of people who have known him well over the years, including Ragsdale, did agree to help the Observer create a portrait of him.
One of the themes most often repeated by his friends was the deep personal pain caused Lipscomb by the stubborn refusal of the black middle-class establishment in Dallas to grant him respect for his years of service.
"Particularly in the African-American community, this city is very cruel to those who fought the good fight," says activist Marvin Crenshaw, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit that produced the current 14-1 city council system.
Crenshaw told of a glittering affair in 1993, a year before S.M. Wright's death from cancer, when the upscale segment of the Dallas black community hosted Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson, a native son of Dallas. Wright sat beaming proudly on the dais with Jackson. The city's white mayor was also at the table. But when Lipscomb and then-Councilwoman Ragsdale arrived, they found that they had been left to sit at a distant table.
Lipscomb, saying he was angered by the insult to his wife, walked out.
"They did it to Diane all the time too," says Sandra Crenshaw. "The black socialites, when they had their big affairs, they wanted [former Mayor Annette Strauss] up there because she had the clothes for it. But they tried to fix it so Diane wouldn't show up."
Roy Williams, the other plaintiff in the 14-1 lawsuit, speaks bitterly of Al Lipscomb's plight and puts much of the blame on the black community.
"My contention is that the African-American community has not supported its warriors," he says. "These are people who have made tremendous sacrifices, who helped fight the battles for the community. And there is no physical show of appreciation for it."
Williams, like Marvin Crenshaw and other grassroots community organizers, tends to identify all middle-class black people with the middle-class Dallas black people who sold them out for years.
"These young, middle-class blacks," he says, "they don't have a history of struggle. The difference between an Al Lipscomb and a Ron Kirk is that Kirk has never even painted a protest sign, let alone marched."
His portrayal of Ron Kirk, the city's first black mayor, as an unappreciative son of privilege is a common theme among the city's black activists. It's mistaken in its understanding of Kirk, but it's also wrong--in a more serious way--in its understanding of how things happened in the rest of the world. For one thing, in the rest of the country, the role of community activist has seldom been viewed as a tenured position, let alone a paying job.
In Austin, where Ron Kirk grew up, Kirk's mother is still revered by African-Americans as a kind of female Al Lipscomb, a pioneer civil rights battler and one-woman social agency.
But Ankie Kirk was of the middle class. She was a schoolteacher. Her husband was a postal employee who flew his own plane. The Kirk children went to college and law school and did well. Social gain was the payoff.
Here in Dallas, there was never a nexus of the civil rights movement with the black middle class. Here, the struggle was a battle of paupers against white millionaires and their henchmen among the sold-out black ministers. Here, the payoff wasn't social. The payoff was a payoff.
While grassroots organizers in the black community tend to see Uncle Toms in all upwardly mobile black people, many middle-class blacks and whites as well see the organizers as opportunists who have never organized anything in their lives, including their lives.
Soon after taking office, Mayor Kirk told an out-of-town reporter, "They're used to coming down here and whooping and hollering for the TV cameras, and my impression is that most of them come right back around the next day with their hands out for money."
White liberals in Dallas in the late 1960s and 1970s tended to be heartbreakers. A so-called liberal or progressive movement to reform the Dallas Independent School District, called LEAD, made an end-run around the sold-out preachers and won support from the grassroots black community. But when black activists showed up at a meeting at Stanley Marcus' house to ask that their candidate, a postal carrier named Arthur Joe Fred, be placed on the LEAD slate for the school board election, the liberals said no.
Fred was not a doctor or a lawyer, like the black men the downtown business leaders allowed to occupy the one black seat they had created for the black community on the City Council. The rules were clear, even for liberals: A person might be black. But a person could not be black and also poor, or even working-class, and occupy public office.
In the early 1970s, spurred by an alliance of grassroots community leaders and white progressives, the city created the Crossroads Community Center, now the Martin Luther King Jr. Center on MLK Boulevard. Paul Ragsdale led a group that fought to put genuine grassroots African-American community leaders in control of the board of this clearly African-American institution.
But white leaders, who didn't want black people in charge of money, moved quickly to dilute the board, so that the black community would not be able to control even its own community center. The impression of black people who participated in that battle is that the white liberals who had helped create the center dropped out of sight when the going got rough.
Both of these fights--the LEAD movement and the Crossroads Community Center--were learning experiences for Lipscomb and people like him, precursors of the coming battle for an all-single-member district city council. In the 1980s, a new generation of white liberals, associated mainly with the neighborhood movement, were puzzled and frustrated by the cold shoulder they got from people like Lipscomb. But of course nothing in Lipscomb's personal history would have taught him to put a lot of heavy trust in liberals.
In the 1970s, while the black middle class reviled them and the white liberals faded under fire, the people who brought the groceries down to South Dallas were always there. By the mid-70s, when Peter Johnson returned to Dallas--his movement days behind him, Johnson was looking for work--he noticed that his old friend, Albert Lipscomb, had a new set of friends.
Johnson peels off names of the CEOs of the city's major locally owned grocery chains: "Buddy Minyard, Robert Cullum, Pete Schenkel, Jack Evans--he was close to them all. Albert called Cullum 'Uncle Bob.'"
Black people had to eat. Sooner or later, one way or another, they had to gather up what money they possessed and go buy groceries. As such, they were a lucrative market to the grocers. But the city's one glimpse of true black power--the SCLC boycott of Safeway--had taught the people who owned grocery stores a chilling counter-lesson: Black people could decide where to buy their groceries. They needed to be mollified, within limits. Perhaps this is why the history of race relations in Dallas is a trail of groceries.
Lipscomb made no secret to anyone of the fact that the grocery crowd was supporting him. Johnson says now there was a certain rudimentary logic in Lipscomb's connection with them.
"There were two groups of business people in Dallas then, and the Cullums and the Minyards and people like that were the moderates. They were even liberals next to John Stemmons, who would call you a nigger to your face. The group Albert was allied with were much more sensitive to the misery of the black community than the Citizens Charter people were.
"But they were no agents of change, either, by any means. They wanted to make things a little better. But they didn't want to make things different. They still wanted control."
There is broad agreement among Lipscomb's contemporaries--including both his most ardent defenders and the people who won't shed a tear if he dies in jail--that the game in Dallas was always for control.
Ole Anthony, now a liberal religious reformer, was a young white conservative politician in the early 1970s. "The Dallas royalty then," he says, "was always willing to shift a little, to cloak it in new garb, but the nature of the beast was a lust for control."
Alphonso Jackson, former head of public housing in Dallas, now a private-sector executive, says, "Dallas has always been a city that prides itself on control, whether it's the Dallas Citizens Council of 40 years ago or the Dallas Citizens Council of today. Control is a big factor."
Charles Stovall of SCLC says he thinks the determination of the white business establishment to control the entire community is unbroken and undiminished since the 1950s.
"I'm really concerned," he says, "that whites and especially the business community want to control the politics of money at both DISD and City Hall as much as they ever did."
Comer Cottrell adds, "Big money still owns Dallas."
Cottrell sees Ron Kirk as a tool of the downtown business establishment and interprets his election as proof that the same old game is alive and well.
"If you ever saw a tool and a toy, that's it," Cottrell says of Kirk.
In 1995 there was a wave of support for Cottrell to run against Kirk. But Cottrell, many times a millionaire, says he made it plain to the people asking him that he wouldn't consider the job, given the strings he sees attached to it by a small cadre of downtown business leaders.
"There was a whole lot of support for me to run against him," Cottrell says, "including support in the white and Hispanic communities. But I told people I would have no interest in that.
"I don't want to be running for mayor. I want to own me a mayor, like Ray Hunt."
Cottrell eventually resigned his position on the Dallas Citizens Council. "I told them I don't need a job, I don't need your money, and I damn sure don't want your charitable appointments. I said it's time for you people to listen to a free nigger for a change."
The wealthy white people who have helped Lipscomb and some of the other black activists over the years always say that they never expected or asked for a return on their generosity. But never is a big word, and control is the ability to call a favor when you really need one.
Pete Schenkel, the Schepps Dairy CEO who sent boxes of groceries to Al Lipscomb's wife's social functions, is painted by his friends, including people in the black community like Peter Johnson, as having acted out of compassion. Of course, Lipscomb himself told the Observer in 1996 that there were many major political issues over the years on which Schenkel had either persuaded or just plain ordered Lipscomb to change his voting position on the council.
One was Lipscomb's resistance to the mayoral candidacy of Republican congressman Steve Bartlett. On that one, Lipscomb professed to have been genuinely won over by Bartlett himself.
The second, however, had to do with Lipscomb's part in a broad-based assault by the city's black leadership on former school board president Sandy Kress. Lipscomb told the Observer Schenkel had essentially ordered him to apologize to Kress in Schenkel's office. So Lipscomb did as he was bid, enraging many other black leaders with whom he broke ranks in order to keep Schenkel happy.
A widely circulated conspiracy theory in the black community today has it that Lipscomb's current problems stem from a later second verbal assault Lipscomb made on Kress, calling for his resignation over remarks Kress was believed to have made on the infamous "Peavy tapes."
The theory revolves around the fact that Kress and U.S. Attorney Coggins both used to work at the old Johnson and Gibbs law firm. But in fact they worked there at different times and in totally different parts of the firm.
The point, according to people familiar with city council politics, is that anyone who could yank Lipscomb around so effectively on really big issues was certainly able to do it on "small" things--zoning questions, contracts, appointments to key boards and commissions, the myriad of low-visibility, high-dollar issues that ordinary voters don't even know about.
"Two or three people sit around a very small table at the Dallas Country Club," says Jim Buerger, former councilman from Oak Cliff and a successful publishing entrepreneur. "One of them says, 'I've got three votes.' Another one says, 'I've got four votes.'
Referring to the late Jack Evans, CEO of the Cullum grocery company, Buerger says, "Jack Evans had three votes. Al Lipscomb, Max Wells, and John Evans. You only need six on an 11-member council. On other issues, Schenkel was the one who ran Al.
Former Councilman Jerry Bartos, an entrepreneur in the air-conditioning business, confirmed a story about himself, Lipscomb, and Schenkel. He says it was true that Lipscomb, long a supporter of Bartos' position against the Wright amendment at Love Field, came to Bartos and told him sadly that he was going to have to change his vote on orders from Schenkel.
"I called Pete and asked him to let Al keep his vote," Bartos says. "He said OK, for me he would."
Schenkel told the Observer he does not remember the incident.
Former Mayor Annette Strauss, who has admitted giving small cash gifts and loans to activists in the black community on several occasions, insists that she did it because "I'm a soft touch. They would come to me with their problems, and I would write a check. It meant nothing to me financially, and they were in need. It was probably bad judgment on my part, but I did it from compassion, and I never expected anything in return."
But in the course of the 14-1 city council lawsuit, Marvin Crenshaw testified under oath that Strauss had button-holed him in the parking garage of City Hall and insisted that he get out of the 1987 mayoral race in return for money she had given him in the past.
"So she said, 'You know, I thought you were my friend,'" Crenshaw testified. "I said, 'What are you talking about?' She said, 'Didn't I let you have the money to go to school?' I said, 'You sure did.' She said, 'Why are you going to do me like that...Why are you going to run against me?'
"I said, 'Look, Mayor Strauss, I don't know what you do to other people whom you say you're going to help, but just because you let me have two or three hundred dollars to go to school does not mean you control me. I am not your slave, and don't ever say anything like that to me again."
But that was not the end of it, according to Crenshaw's testimony. He said Strauss approached him again days later on the fifth floor of City Hall and handed him a note saying, "Call this number."
Crenshaw said under oath he called the number and ended up meeting with a white Democratic activist, who offered him $5,000 to get out of the mayoral race.
The other lesson to be drawn from Crenshaw's testimony is that, even if Strauss did lean on him, it was only after he had leaned on her and walked away with a personal scholarship. The black activists, if anything, tend to remember Mayor Strauss well.
"I have the utmost respect for Mayor Strauss," says Roy Williams. "I think she was critical to our getting 14-1. If one of these other former mayors had been there, we wouldn't have had it."
In fact, the way the game is played and has always been played in Dallas almost assumes that, in return for every give, eventually there will be a take. It's not against the rules. It's a tradition so deeply woven in the fabric of local politics that some people, even people who see it as perpetuating white control, wonder if it can be construed as corruption.
Robert Bowen, the former SCLC activist who watches Dallas politics from a comfortable distance now, asks, "How can you corrupt something that you totally control?"
According to people who have been interviewed by the FBI, the questions the FBI is asking closely track information reported by Laura Miller in her May 30, 1996, Observer cover story on Lipscomb, "Clueless" (see sidebar on page 36, "Business as usual"). There has been great bitterness in some sectors of the black community over Miller's stories about the councilman. But it is also a fact that a person close to Lipscomb claims to have carried copies of Miller's Observer stories around to several prominent Dallas business leaders, telling them every word of it is true and that they had better be concerned, because they are named in the story too. The object, the person said, was to get the FBI probe shut down politically.
Specifically, the person carrying copies of the Observer to the city's power brokers wanted them to notice that Miller had outlined the pattern by which many of the city's major locally owned corporations began doing business with Lipscomb's chemical company after he was re-elected to the council in 1995, buying chemicals from his company while he continued to vote on matters of interest to them. The other point was to call attention to the pattern by which some of those same companies may have funneled campaign contributions to Lipscomb through a pattern of small checks from multiple employees.
"They all jumped up and said, 'That's completely legal!'" the person says. "But I told them even if it was legal, Mr. Lipscomb learned from them. He saw them doing things like that, and he's a man of limited education, and he may not have gotten it quite right himself, but he learned from them!"
Given the nature of the federal statute under which Lipscomb would be tried--if he is tried--it appears unlikely that the chemical company transactions will get any of Lipscomb's clients indicted. But it's not inconceivable that some of them could wind up spending some very awkward time in the witness stand and in front of the cameras while Lipscomb's lawyers work on a jury nullification strategy--blaming the whole thing on cynical rich white people who used up a good-hearted old black man and then threw him away like trash.
Obviously the FBI is interested in large gifts of cash filtered to Lipscomb by family members from Floyd Richards, owner of Yellow Cab, specifically a $12,000 payment to Lipscomb that turned up in his son-in-law's bankruptcy filing.
There is no federal bribery statute that touches local officials. Instead, the U.S. attorney must use a statute governing extortion by public officials. In order to meet the test of that statute, the government must show criminal intent on the part of the official as well as an agreement between the official and the bribe-payer that the bribe will be closely followed by a corrupt official act.
A middleperson between Richards and Lipscomb is believed to be ready to testify that the money Richards gave Lipscomb's son-in-law was intended as a bribe. It's pretty good circumstantial evidence, but far less than a smoking gun under the statute. (Richards would not grant an interview. His attorney has said the money Richards gave Lipscomb's son-in-law was intended as a loan.)
Susan Klein, a law professor at UT-Austin and an expert in federal criminal statutes, says most such cases depend on tape-recorded evidence or the testimony of a bribe-giver who rolls over on the bribe-taker.
"Without that, you could offer the jury circumstantial evidence of an agreement," she says. "That would be more difficult."
If Miller's reporting was the starting place, the investigation seems to have proceeded from there to a number of other interesting areas. Yellow Cab has been the main player in a bitter taxi war that has smoldered in Dallas for several years. As in many cities, the Dallas City Council grants virtual cartel control of the local cab business to a few companies by controlling the number of licenses granted.
Lipscomb has been a key player and vote on this and other cab issues, including permission to place major facilities outside the city limits and even control over the ownership of one company.
There are a number of side issues in the war that have received scant to no reporting in the major local media, including allegations of substantial corruption at DART in the Handi-Ride program for the disabled--an area the FBI is looking at.
In addition, looming in the background of the taxi war are allegations of major international money laundering that don't involve Lipscomb. The feds appear to have seriously fumbled some of that investigation, having lost track of at least one important suspect.
In an area that appears to be unrelated to the taxi wars, there have been complaints behind the scenes for some years now by nervous bankers who feel they are being extorted for so-called community reinvestment money. The allegations of wrongdoing, which may or may not have any basis in fact, are that people in the minority community are personally profiteering from the federally mandated community reinvestment program. Under federal banking law, banks are required to put a certain amount of loan money out in red-lined areas.
Sources familiar with what the FBI is asking say agents have been looking for general evidence of bank extortion for more than a year. The questions being asked don't seem to involve Lipscomb, but they do involve people who have been closely associated with him. The bankers, according to the sources, are nervous about not wanting to admit they have paid anybody off but are even more nervous about not wanting to keep paying.
A number of people close to the investigation suggest there are serious efforts under way to fashion a deal that will keep Al Lipscomb out of jail in his old age and get Sandra Crenshaw and Don Hicks--both linked tangentially to the taxi wars--out of the FBI's headlights.
A recent rally at City Hall in which almost every major black leader in the city showed support for Lipscomb, including the mayor in absentia, was supposed to have been followed by a march on the federal building. Frantic last-minute calls by people negotiating for Lipscomb persuaded organizers of the march to call it off, for fear a demonstration might make the feds mad and scotch any deals.
Several people who described possible deals mentioned the same basic elements: 1. Al, who is in quite bad health, leaves public office; 2. Al rolls over on somebody big enough to give the feds some credibility; 3. Al takes a credibility hit of his own--a pinioning of his political wings, so to speak, to ensure that, in his remaining years, he won't try to fly again.
One person who has been interviewed by the FBI--an ardent Lipscomb supporter--says he thinks the last element is the most important. "Whatever happens, if he is indicted or not, something will come out showing that he has betrayed the community in a major way. That's to take the edge off his support."
Lipscomb, said to be terrified of dying in prison, may agree to it all.
It's the last element--the need to make the community stop loving him--that probably says the most about Dallas. The source of his power and the one thing a city obsessed with control has never been able to contain is love.
All of the broad spectrum of people from the black community who spoke to the Observer, and some whites, mentioned Lipscomb's belovedness almost before anything else.
Some of it may be guilt from a black community that knows in its heart this old man would never have come to such a pass had the community supported him. Some of it expresses a belief that Al Lipscomb could never in his best dreams be as corrupt as white Dallas, and therefore he should not have to pay alone for the sins of the whole plantation.
Some of it is hypocrisy. A source close to the investigation told the Observer that a few of the black leaders who expressed support for Lipscomb at the recent City Hall rally are already beating a back-corridor path to Coggins to tell him they didn't really mean it.
But obviously the outpouring of feeling for Lipscomb is also in some measure an expression of deep, simple love and admiration.
Asked to explain it, Janice Winkley Gore thought for a while and then said, "He just deserves our love. It's hard to be a stand-up guy in a sit-down community."
I had the privilege once, years ago, of watching Councilman Lipscomb work a huge room of people in which I was the only white face. I think he puts on a certain amount of posture around whites--funny, angry, charming, but always a little stagy. That's why some white people take him for a clown.
In this setting, he was just there. There was no armor. He seemed physically enormous, looming over the crowd like a Colossus. He was elegant, graceful in every movement and gesture. And he was emotionally grand, powerful, commanding in a way that seemed to make people sit, grow quiet, and bask in his warmth.
He had that special stuff. I watched him and thought to myself, "Different time, different place, different deal: This would be an LBJ."
He may go down. If he does, it will be his own fault. But I don't think they'll be able to come up with anything that will dull the wound to the heart of the black community.
And I know they will never be able to rub the stain from the soul of white Dallas.
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