The plantation burns

Al Lipscomb is on trial for bribery. The real charge is "traitor."

AMARILLO -- The federal legal charges against Dallas City Councilman Al Lipscomb consist of 65 counts of bribery and conspiracy. But the real charge is treachery.

The government's underlying case against Al Lipscomb -- the moral subtext that runs beneath every syllable of government testimony -- is not that the snowy-haired 74-year-old beloved icon of the local civil rights movement has taken some money in trade for his vote on taxicab issues. It is that Al Lipscomb sold his own people down the river. Cheap.

The jurors in Amarillo, where the case was sent by the judge on a change of venue because of pre-trial publicity, might have a hard time cutting through the tangled racial politics and mores of a city hundreds of miles and cultural leagues away from them. But at some level all people across all boundaries and distance understand what betrayal is.

Michael Hogue
Dallas City Councilman Al Lipscomb's own words championing minority cab owners were used against him by the prosecution.
Henry Bargas
Dallas City Councilman Al Lipscomb's own words championing minority cab owners were used against him by the prosecution.

At the beginning of the second week of trial, when the jury finally got to hear from the man who had confessed to paying Lipscomb bribes, the 12 jurors and 2 alternates had been primed by both sides to look for one answer: Was this the kind of person Al Lipscomb could possibly have loved for any reason other than his money?

Ironically, it was Lipscomb's own lead attorney who seemed to make the answer a resounding no.

From the very beginning, starting with the lawyers' opening statements, the Lipscomb trial had turned morally topsy-turvy, a departure from what had been threatened and anticipated. For a year and a half, Lipscomb's defenders had vowed to put Dallas itself in the dock if anybody dared put Lipscomb on trial.

His lawyers, so the threat went, would lay bare the dirty under-plumbing of the old Dallas plantation system of racial politics. They would exonerate Al by making him a hero in an evil city.

But almost as soon as Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Uhl began to unveil the government's carefully crafted bribery conspiracy case against Lipscomb, it was clear the prosecutors were the ones intent on burning the plantation to the ground.

In a tight, clean line they came, one after another, government witness after government witness, some black, some white, each telling smelly secrets of the old plantation system in Dallas. While Lipscomb sat in rigid silence across the boxy, high-ceilinged federal courtroom in Amarillo, the witnesses said again and again what for so long no one had dared whisper back in Dallas:

Al sold out.

And he didn't just sell out anybody. He sold out minority cab drivers, who for decades had been a key small-business and political vanguard of the black community. From Ezell Randall, the wealthy African-American owner of Terminal Cab in the 1970s and '80s, down to the humblest independent cabbie, the African-American men and women of the taxicab business had given generous financial support to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and they had served as the eyes and ears of the civil rights movement in Dallas. The government charge was that Al knifed them all in the back.

This is the real charge against Al Lipscomb: that, in exchange for $1,000 a month in cash over three years, a Cadillac, free cab rides, and some booze, Al Lipscomb helped a foul-mouthed, n-word-using white son of a bitch attempt to screw minority and independent cab drivers out of their livelihoods.

It could not be worse. But as a wretched week of testimony dragged by, one thing became more obvious: The government's case is strong. And the case Lipscomb's lawyers put on in the first week of trial was pathetic.

Pathetic.

They did try to play the plantation card. But what a mess. Billy Ravkind, Lipscomb's lead attorney and one of the most respected criminal lawyers in the country, must have spent all of his time before the trial trying to get Lipscomb to plead guilty, and that's why Ravkind didn't have time to prepare a real case. That's the generous interpretation. The other would be that Ravkind, at the end of a distinguished career, needs to buy a big boat and stay on it.

Ravkind was all over the map with a complicated racial theory -- all about how Yellow Cab of Dallas used to be a bad racist cab company until a progressive new owner brought Al Lipscomb on board as a consultant to help turn it into the paragon of racial enlightenment that it is today. Ravkind's problem was that black witnesses kept painting the former owner of Yellow Cab as a good guy, for a white guy, and definitely not a racist, while white witnesses kept painting the new owner, Floyd Richards, as a drunken, mean, racist bastard. Ravkind's racial math never worked.

Ravkind even got into it with a very credible African-American witness, putting himself in the position of being a white guy arguing with a black guy about the racism of another white guy. The more Ravkind tried to get Yellow Cab employee Walter Sterling, who is black, to say that former Yellow Cab owner Karl Kuhlman, who is white, was a racist, the worse things got for Ravkind, until Sterling finally said: "He and I drank out of the same cup sometimes. I can't call somebody like that a racist."

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