Black out

Lipscomb takes his story to Anglo Amarillo and hopes it plays better than prosecutors'

The most charitable spin for what Ravkind and Melsheimer told the News is that they really believe it: They think Amarillo is a wall they can't climb. And maybe in the back of their minds they hope Lipscomb reads the story and goes weak in the knees, so they won't have to bring him up here and lose in front of everybody.

But Lipscomb is hearing from other voices as well. Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price told me at the beginning of the week that Lipscomb's supporters -- the ones who didn't want him to plead -- think the government's case has been puffed up bigger in the media than it really is.

"He is charged with corruption," Price said. "He isn't charged with taking money. If you're asking me if Al Lipscomb takes money, I'll say, sure, Al has always accepted money. Most civil rights leaders in this city have probably always had beneficiaries in the white business community who could not afford to be identified. That comes all the way from the era of the Underground Railroad.

"But if the question is, Was Al Lipscomb corrupted by that money? then the answer is definitely no. Al Lipscomb was never corrupted."

It's an interesting point, given what must be proven to make a federal bribery/corruption case. There has to be an explicit understanding on both sides of the deal that the money given is payment for a vote or influence. Floyd Richards is only one side of the equation.

Price is on the witness list for the defense. He didn't say what he thinks he may be asked about, but the possibility looms that he will tell an Amarillo jury all about a strange and distant kingdom called "Plantation Dallas," where white men have always slipped cash into the pockets of black leaders to assuage their white guilt without getting themselves in trouble. If nothing else, the trial will give Dallas an interesting opportunity to see its reflection in the mirror of another community's mind.

Unlike the cities of Central and East Texas, cities out here grow south and to the west. John Ward, the city manager, told me, "I swear cities in West Texas grow into the wind."

I had asked Ward, When a major employer brings some African-American MIT graduate here for a big job, where does he buy a house? Ward brought out a map and stabbed at the far southwestern tip of the city. "Right there," he said. "Where I live."

The old indigenous black neighborhood is at the other end of the city, northeast and downwind of the packing plants and small factories. Smooth, beautifully curbed pavement stops at the borders of the industrial area, giving way to rutted dirt roads between the small, brutally weather-beaten houses of the old black neighborhood.

Interestingly enough, Al Lipscomb is known here. The first preacher whose office I walked into said, "Oh, yes. Brother Al. I knew him when I was at Bishop College."

Two blocks away at the Black Historical Cultural Center, the center's director, the Rev. Michael DeVaughn, also spoke warmly of Lipscomb. DeVaughn spent time in Dallas in the 1980s, when he worked on the city council campaign of the recently deceased Elsie Faye Heggins.

"I know there were people who felt that Mr. Lipscomb's aggressive, very confrontational style, even in the 1980s, may have been a little antiquated," DeVaughn says. "But I thought Dallas in the 1980s needed to hear his 1960s voice."

The black churches here date to the first years of the 20th century. Black people were brought to Amarillo to work as domestics and hotel workers. At first they lived in servants' quarters, and then slowly the little wind-blown neighborhood downwind of the packing plants took root. This week when I asked a local NAACP official about the unpaved streets, she was more embarrassed than angry. "We're working on that," she said.

I have to admit that Amarillo is a puzzle to me. I just don't know it well enough to predict its behavior. The personal guru I went to, in hopes he could render the sum at the bottom of the page, was Chip Babcock. Babcock is the Dallas media lawyer who brought Oprah Winfrey here and won her beef-slander case for her in front of an all-white Amarillo jury, virtually all of whom had economic ties, some direct and some indirect, to the cattle industry.

How about that?

Babcock said he wouldn't tell me in any detail what kind of jury analysis he did before the Oprah case, "because I don't want to reveal trial strategy." But he said basically that, with a big high-dollar, high-stakes trial like the Oprah trial, no stone is left unturned.

The bottom line, he says, is that the Oprah jury voted against its own economic self-interest and in favor of principle. He thinks that illustrates "a pretty strong independent streak in West Texas."

Babcock believes there is always a way to appeal to principle beyond and above the power of bias. "If people think white people on juries always vote against black people and black people always vote for black people, then that's a pretty sad comment, isn't it?"

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