Roots

The mess at City Hall goes back to ancient times

It's not the Chisel Rights Movement. And isn't it interesting that all the same issues coming up around the federal bribery/corruption probe at Dallas City Hall came up five years ago during the federal bribery/corruption trial of former Dallas City Council member Al Lipscomb?

How many times do we have to get hit in the head with the same two-by-four?

Powerful white people handing out cheap payoffs to African-American elected officials in exchange for their "cooperation" is not what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was fighting for.

Last week I went with heavy heart to the Texas/Dallas History and Archives Division on the 7th floor of the Dallas Central Library to revisit the Juanita Jewel Craft Collection, named for the woman Dallas reveres as mother of its local civil rights movement.

Depends on what you mean by Civil Rights Movement. Look. Juanita J. Craft (1902-1985) was a brave lady. She was the first black woman to vote in Dallas County, was instrumental in integrating the University of North Texas and fought successfully to open the State Fair of Texas to black people.

But Craft always said bluntly she did not believe in or support Dr. King or the campaign of confrontational civil disobedience most Americans think of when they hear the term Civil Rights Movement. It's a theme throughout the massive collection of papers, letters and memorabilia she left to the central library when she died.

"I never have been a follower of Dr. King," she told an interviewer in 1968. She also told the interviewer, who was compiling an oral history of the Civil Rights Movement, how hard she had worked in Dallas to steer young people away from Dr. King's politics.

Proudly tucked into files in her collection are notes and letters from white Dallas leaders--L.S. Turner Jr., president and general manager of the Dallas Power and Light Company; Robert B. Cullum, chairman of Tom Thumb Supermarkets; Mike McKool of the law firm McKool, McKool and Jones--expressing affection and proffering generous checks.

My heart was heavy when I headed off to look at this stuff because I knew exactly what I would find. I had interviewed Craft shortly before her death. Back then she wanted to tell me two things in particular: She wanted me to know how important she had been in helping keep Dallas' young black people out of Dr. King's movement. And she wanted me to know how grateful the rich white people downtown still were.

Frail and stooped, she led me to the back of her house to see the basket of food, milk and juice she received regularly from Schepps Dairy. Craft's house on Warren Street is now owned and operated by the city of Dallas as a museum, called the Juanita Craft Civil Rights House.

Now, 20 years later, I don't begrudge this poor elderly woman who had given so much of herself to the city these pathetic gifts of sustenance. But helping keep the lid on and taking gifts from grateful white people does not have anything to do with the Civil Rights Movement.

This point, far from being obvious or anachronistic, still is not accepted or even understood in Dallas. By black people. Or by the old white remnant still in control of private business groups like the Dallas Citizens Council and the Greater Dallas Chamber of Commerce.

To them it's just folks gettin' along. I'd say, yeah. But some folks might be gettin' along to prison.

This question--can you be a civil rights leader if you take payoffs from rich white guys--was a central element in the trial five years ago in which a federal jury found former council member Al Lipscomb guilty of 65 counts of bribery and corruption. A parade of white business leaders testified they had always provided black community leaders with "gifts." And revered black Dallas spiritual and political leaders were called by the defense to assure a mighty skeptical-looking jury in Amarillo that civil rights leaders had always taken under-the-table payoffs from white people.

Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price told the jury: "If you are going to be a firebrand activist, you have to have some other method of income. This occurred across the country."

Craig Flournoy wrote a story at the time for The Dallas Morning News in which he checked with scholars of the movement to see if that was ever even remotely true. David Garrow, author of Bearing the Cross, a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of MLK, told Flournoy: "I know of no single example of that, whether at the national level or at the community level, during the Civil Rights Movement. And clearly, it does tremendous harm to the legacy of the movement for anyone to claim that this sort of receipt of payoffs is any part of the movement's history."

Lipscomb's conviction was overturned by an appeals court because the court thought the trial judge had been wrong to take the trial to Amarillo. I always thought the appeals court was right on that score. But I covered the Lipscomb trial for the Dallas Observer. And I remember that the jurors, however white and ultra-conservative they may have been, sat up and paid close attention to one key point federal prosecutors very skillfully presented: that after Al Lipscomb started taking cash from the white owner of a cab company, he made a 180 in his position on taxicab issues and started voting against the interests of the people of color who tended to be small entrepreneurial cab operators in Dallas.

That's the point. The gifts weren't gifts. They were bribes. These were 30 pieces of silver.

Because the government concentrated on the cash Lipscomb took from Yellow Cab, the case against him never really got to the litany of additional instances Laura Miller had cataloged in her May 30, 1996, cover story for the Observer, "Clueless: For city Councilman Al Lipscomb, taking handouts from power brokers has become a way of life." That one story was the road map for the government's case against Lipscomb.

In it, Miller, who is now mayor of Dallas, presented a laundry list of instances in which powerful white interests--from The Dallas Morning News to Lone Star Gas--loaned Lipscomb money, did favors for his business ventures and then eventually called the notes due by asking for his vote on key issues. Lipscomb always pushed the green button and paid off. He was clearly wounded later when he went off the council and some of the same interests stopped taking his calls.

If anything, there was a note of empathy in Miller's story--even in the headline. It was obvious Lipscomb didn't understand what was wrong with taking money from rich white people and then voting against the interests of black people. And I think it was obvious, in re-reading the piece this many years later, that Miller felt sorry for him on that account. Southern Dallas leaders still castigate Miller for writing that piece. I don't quite get why she isn't their hero for that one.

The immediate parallel here is with the process at the center of the FBI probe. The FBI has been scooping up documents and stuffing microphones in people's pockets in what looks like a massive bribery and corruption probe centered on Dallas' black leadership. The key element is the procedure by which real estate developers seek state funding in the tens of millions of dollars for subsidized apartment developments.

African-American council members Don Hill and James Fantroy had opposed additional projects of this kind for southern Dallas. They were hearing pleas from stable and striving neighborhoods that southern Dallas was already burdened with all the subsidized housing it could handle.

But they changed their minds. They began giving a thumbs-up to certain projects. The question the FBI is trying to sort out is whether the security guard and cement contracts the developers gave to the councilmen and their friends amounted to a tit-for-tat.

I had lunch last week with Roy Williams and Marvin Crenshaw, plaintiffs in Williams vs. City of Dallas, the 1988 federal civil rights case that produced the current system of city government in Dallas. They say black representatives on the council now have little connection to or even knowledge of the struggles of the past.

Crenshaw and Williams also reminded me of another factor: The FBI also appears to be looking into $50,000 that disappeared from a fund associated with Paul Quinn College shortly before Councilman Fantroy was forced out as treasurer of the fund.

"If there's anything to that," Williams said, "it's going to be very bad, because it's taking money from a struggling black institution."

The Crenshaw and Williams lawsuit brought us the 14-1 single-member council system, in which the city is subdivided into 14 theoretically equal or at least similar council districts and one at-large district for the mayor. That should give us an approximate population of about 78,000 souls per district.

Without getting into too much detail about how many people are registered to vote and why, I'd like to point out that in the May 7, 2005, election and June 4 run-off, council member Hill was elected by 2.8 percent of the people over whom he now rules. Fantroy was elected by 1.7 percent. And that's about how these elections tend to go citywide.

The old culture, black and white, has produced numbing voter apathy, one of the worst crime rates in the nation, a badly neglected infrastructure and, even worse, a growing despair of the future deep in the heart of the city.

And yet the answer is so simple. Burn down the plantation. Pay the city council members $120,000 a year. Get real people on the council. Put a real mayor in charge with a strong-mayor reform. Throw open the windows and start fresh.

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1 comments
ms.freedmans
ms.freedmans

Sad case! They're still selling black people and our communities out 2013-2013!

 
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