The plantation burns

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

The picture painted of Floyd Richards by Pavlik, Kuhlman, and other witnesses is devastating for Lipscomb because Richards was so clearly Lipscomb's worst enemy, a ruthless white trampler of the law, a greedy drunk, a man whose business plan was monopoly, a man who spewed the n-word about Al Lipscomb in drunken late-night calls.

Lipscomb's lawyers had said before the trial they would make much of the fact that Richards had changed his testimony. Richards appeared before a federal grand jury last year and said under oath that he had not intended his payments to Lipscomb as bribes. Someone in Lipscomb's camp also leaked information to The Dallas Morning News that Richards had passed a lie-detector test saying he hadn't intended the money as bribes.

In its presentation of the case, the government has never been cocky, sharp-spoken, or personally disrespectful to Al Lipscomb. Instead, allowing the case to unfold from the mouths of the witnesses, the government has painted a picture of tragedy and betrayal.

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.

But because of the way the government built its case -- and the way Ravkind walked into it -- the specifics of what Floyd Richards said or didn't say were always going to be relatively unimportant.

Ravkind fought them on their own grounds. He played the other man's game. He told the jury it wasn't betrayal because Floyd Richards was a good man and a good friend to Al Lipscomb.

The upshot was that the jury was never waiting to find out what Floyd Richards was going to say. They were waiting to find out what he was.

On Tuesday morning of the second week of trial, when Floyd Richards finally took the oath, it seemed at first as if Al Lipscomb's legal team might finally have a good day. Ravkind came across cooler and more focused than at the ragged end of the previous week. He cross-examined Richards about a series of answers Richards had given on his lie-detector test two months ago (the test results were inadmissible). The answers to the lie-detector questions, initially confirmed by Richards in Amarillo, seemed to greatly strengthen the best argument of the defense -- that the specific tit-for-tat agreements necessary to make a federal proof of bribery corruption had never taken place.

Referring to the answers Richards had given to the lie-detector operator last year, Ravkind said: "You stated that you never tied the money to a particular vote...You only expected Mr. Lipscomb to answer your phone calls..."

Richards agreed he had given those answers and seemed to stand by them.

"Did you indicate to Al Lipscomb that the money you gave to Al Lipscomb was contingent on his vote?"

"No."

Things were going nicely for the defense for a change. Even more important, Richards, a stocky 56-year-old man with blond hair, a gray beard, and bulldog jaw, was cordial and clearly conveyed to the jury that he hated the position he was in -- state's evidence against a friend.

But for some inexplicable reason, Ravkind started to ride Richards, grilling him, pushing him hard, demanding that he answer complex moral questions about bribery and influence -- distinctions that seemed far outside Richards' normal realm of speculation or interest. Eventually Richards shot out his jaw, leaned forward red-faced and surly, and began dueling with Ravkind.

"You know," Richards barked at him finally, "I'm paying a man a thousand dollars a month, he's going to vote for me." Richards sat back and tipped his jaw up with a nasty little smile. In that moment he was the perfect portrait of the kind of fat, mean little redneck Al Lipscomb should never have given the time of day. And it was Billy Ravkind who had painted the picture for the jury.

The vision of Albert Lipscomb stuck in the paw of a man like Floyd Richards is especially painful, like a knife in the heart, for people who know the vision of Albert Lipscomb, the young warrior for civil rights.

While the trial was on hiatus for the weekend and for Martin Luther King Day, there was a special commemorative service at Mount Olive Lutheran Church on MLK in South Dallas honoring the birth and life of King. Bishop Mark Herbener, who was pastor of Mount Olive in the 1960s and '70s during the movement years, spoke of Dallas' dark secret -- that the black clergy of Dallas, led by the late S.M. Wright, turned their backs on Martin Luther King Jr. In the mid-1960s, when MLK had come to Dallas to speak at the Fair Park Music Hall, Herbener came to the hall, saw it empty, and realized the black clergy in Dallas were heeding Wright's call to boycott MLK's speech.

At Sunday's service, Bishop Herbener introduced Peter Johnson, a former Southern Christian Leadership Conference field organizer during the civil rights movement years. Johnson completed Herbener's anecdote about MLK's bitter day in Dallas. Johnson was one of the staff who met MLK when he returned to Atlanta after the Dallas visit and saw him shed tears over his treatment by the black clergy here.

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