Black out

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

AMARILLO -- Last week when Dallas City Councilman Al Lipscomb told his lawyers he wasn't going to plead guilty to corruption charges and would face trial here on a change of venue instead, the lawyers more or less panicked. Walk around downtown Amarillo for a couple of hours, and you see why.

No black people.

If you're African-American and you come here, maybe you spot it right away. It takes a white boy a little longer. Something odd in the firmament, something missing. They've got the buildings. The cars and trucks. Trees. Birds. Just something not quite there about the place.

No black people.

Now, first of all, I have to say right away that it's not true. There are black people here. The 1990 census found that 6 percent of the city's population of 160,000 was African-American. City Manager John Q. Ward told me Monday he thinks the percentage has moved up to 6.4 percent by now.

Hey, takin' over!

But you know what I mean. If your normal daily environment is a diverse downtown streetscape like Dallas, then it feels a little strange to walk around a place where an entire ethnic group seems to be out of town that day.

The black people who are here are minimally visible in the life of the city, especially downtown in the vicinity of the courts and the municipal buildings. The black community sued twice and was defeated both times in attempts to establish single-member districts for the city council, with the result that there has never been a black Amarillo city council member. A suit against the school district succeeded in forcing an out-of-court settlement, which produced a watered-down single-member system, so for the first time there is now one black school board member. Compared with Dallas, the racial time warp here puts Amarillo somewhere in the early 1970s.

And from the point of view of many people in Dallas, that's the whole issue with moving the Lipscomb trial up here. Last week before I left town, I went to lunch with a very bright and respected Dallas judge who said, "If he winds up with an all-white jury up there, and he gets convicted, that's not going to be received at all well by the black community in Dallas."

The federal jury pool for Amarillo is actually drawn from the surrounding 18 counties. We're talking about some outlying areas where the populace is so white, their definition of white barely includes Lutherans.

Of course, that's exactly why some people say U.S. District Judge Joe Kendall elected on his own, without being asked, to move the trial to Amarillo -- to screw Lipscomb. That may be unfair to Kendall. The judge could have had entirely non-racist reasons for wanting to screw Lipscomb.

For one thing, Lipscomb's lawyers kept telling everybody they were going to subpoena every rich white powerbroker in the city who ever gave Al Lipscomb a dime and embarrass the hell out of all of them in court. So maybe Kendall wanted to earn himself some Dallas social points by sparing the biggies an unpleasantness.

Moving the trial here doesn't spare anybody, of course, with all of the Dallas media camped outside the Amarillo Federal Building, relaying every syllable and nuance back by live feed. But it would have spared them if Al had been so frightened by Amarillo that he accepted the government's offer of a plea bargain and obviated the trial.

There's also a rumor going around that the judge, who has a certain reputation for pique, put the trial up here to punish the defense lawyers for leaking lie-detector results to the media. (Before he came around to the government's side and copped a guilty plea, co-defendant Floyd Richards, owner of Yellow Cab of Dallas, passed a test on the lie-box in which he swore he had never intended his gifts as bribes.)

But who knows? Judges don't explain these things. A source close to the government even suggested last week that Kendall's move could just as easily be interpreted as protective of Lipscomb. Just because everybody in the Dallas jury pool knows him, does that mean everybody likes him?

When Lipscomb turned down the government's offer of a plea bargain and elected to come here and take his chances instead, his decision prompted a strange moment in local legal history: Two of his lawyers, the white ones, told The Dallas Morning News they thought their client was pretty much dead in the water. Scottie Allen, his black lawyer, was ready to march on Amarillo. But the white guys, Billy Ravkind and Tom Melsheimer, told the News they thought Lipscomb's chances of acquittal at trial were "no better than 20 to 30 percent."

If you're the client, you hate to see your own lawyers on the front page saying stuff like that, even if it's true. Especially when you figure that's their game face.

Other things bothered them, of course -- especially the defection of Floyd Richards. That wasn't good.

But how much is Richards worth as a witness? After years of insisting there was no quid pro quo in the money he gave Lipscomb, Richards, who is frail and unwell, suddenly changes his story to avoid prison? A lawyer like Billy Ravkind normally eats witnesses like this for health food.

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?"

Of course, that's a trained mind speaking. I like to base my own decisions more on just walking around downtown looking at people. And having done a bit of that up here in the first part of this week, I understand why at least two of Lipscomb's lawyers would rather be almost anywhere but here.

No black people.

But the die is not yet cast. And the world is infinitely complex -- even Amarillo. The ultimate factor is going to be which travels better: the government's case or Al Lipscomb's personality. That smart judge I went to lunch with in Dallas before coming up here said anybody who doesn't believe Al Lipscomb can charm a West Texan "doesn't know Mr. Lipscomb."

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