The common theme throughout the panel discussion on Friday commemorating the 50th anniversary of the beginning of Robert F. Kennedy’s time as attorney general was his dedication to ensuring civil rights.
The group shared their memories of Kennedy with a huge audience, including members of the Kennedy family, at the Great Hall in the Department of Justice. A portrait of a youthful Kennedy wearing a gray jacket with his hands jammed in his khakis and his red leather high-backed chair stood prominently on stage reminding guests of his lasting imprint at DOJ — and making it hard to believe that he would be 85 years old if he were still alive.
The four panelists included a veteran civil rights activist, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.); an administrative assistant to Attorney General Kennedy and journalist, John Seigenthaler; the first African-American woman to enter the University of Georgia and journalist, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, and the First Assistant and then the Assistant Attorney General of the Civil Rights Division from 1960 to 1967, John Doar. The moderator was Jack Rosenthal, a public affairs officer and special assistant to Kennedy and a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist for The New York Times.
Elected to the House of Representatives in 1986, Lewis recalled his tumultuous experience as a freedom rider in the 1960s. The activists planned to travel from Washington, D.C., to New Orleans. But they were stalled in Montgomery, Ala. and subjected to beatings and violence. Kennedy intervened and threatened federal intervention if a Greyhound bus driver did not drive the group so their journey could go on.
“It was the first real test in the area of civil rights,” Lewis said. “Robert Kennedy used his power, used his ability to save lives that evening in Montgomery.” Lewis knew well the dangers faced by civil rights activists: he was clubbed on the head by Alabama state troopers in1965.
Seigenthaler called that era an exciting time to be able “to listen to the work of justice unfold by these giants of justice.”
Hunter-Gault witnessed Kennedy’s first major speech as Attorney General. She freely admitted her anxieties and uneasiness anticipating his speech, for she was still smarting from her peers’ racist taunts protesting her admittance to the University of Georgia.
Her fears started to ease once she heard Kennedy speak to the universality of equal rights. “I suddenly heard Kennedy say in the worldwide struggle, the graduation of Charlayne Hunter in Hamilton homes will without a question aid and assist the fight against communism, political infiltration and the global warfare. And I said my graduation is going to do what?”
Doar, who was one of the central figures at DOJ, dedicating himself to getting rid of Jim Crow laws and helping draft the Voting Rights Act of 1965, emphasized Kennedy’s involvement with civil rights advancements.
He recalled Kennedy’s drive, his ability to get attorneys to work with him, his generosity and sense of humor. Kennedy would say, “‘You’ve got to do more; what are you going to do about Mississippi?’ That’s not good enough,’” Doar said.
The day had a decidedly celebratory tone, with the current attorney general, Eric Holder, the first black man to hold the post, and Kennedy’s eldest daughter, Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, offering remarks and Kennedy’s widow, Ethel, joining them on stage. But it was marked with solemn reverence for the man to whom the day was dedicated.
Both Doar and Lewis easily associated Kennedy’s legacy with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. “Without 1965, there would be no [President] Barack Obama as president of the United States of America,” Lewis said.
The Justice Department on Jan. 21 will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the swearing in of Robert F. Kennedy as Attorney General. The event will take place at Justice Department headquarters, officially named the Robert F. Kennedy Department of Justice Building and nicknamed Main Justice.
Former and current DOJ employees are expected to attend, along with Kennedy’s widow, Ethel Kennedy, other members of the Kennedy family, civil rights leaders and historians.
The event will include remarks from Attorney General Eric Holder and Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, Kennedy’s daughter and the former lieutenant governor of Maryland. A video retrospective also will be shown.
In addition, Jack Rosenthal, a chief press officer at DOJ under Kennedy, will moderate a panel discussion featuring John Seigenthaler, administrative assistant to Kennedy; John Doar, the First Assistant of the Civil Rights Division under Kennedy; journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault, who was the first African American to graduate from the University of Georgia, and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), who was a leader in the civil rights movement before winning election to Congress.
The event will conclude with a special video message from former Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach, who served as Deputy Attorney General under Kennedy.
Courtney A. Evans, a top FBI official who served as a liaison between FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover and President John F. Kennedy and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, died Dec. 11 at the age of 95 of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease at the Carlisle Naples retirement center in Naples, Fla. reports The Washington Post.
Evans’ job “landed him in the middle of a power struggle between the autocratic Hoover and a new administration determined to rein in Hoover’s authority,” reports The Post:
Mr. Evans briefed the attorney general about the differences between the two types of surveillance, which led Kennedy to ask for a list of wiretap requests. The list was sent to him, then returned to a secret FBI file, which allowed Kennedy in subsequent years to deny that he authorized the wiretapping of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. or others.
He resigned from the FBI in 1964 and went to work as executive director of the Justice Department’s Office of Law Enforcement Assistance. He later was a founding partner in the Washington law firm of Miller, Cassidy, Larrocca and Lewin, retiring in the mid-1980s.
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When the George W. Bush Justice Department filed a civil complaint against members of the New Black Panther Party in January, it invoked a rarely used provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act to allege voter intimidation.
It was the second time the Bush DOJ filed suit under Section 11 (b) of the landmark civil rights legislation – both times targeting black defendants.
The common denominator in these unusual applications of Section 11 (b) is J. Christian Adams, a line attorney at the Justice Department who compiled the Black Panthers case and also worked on a 2005 federal lawsuit against black officials in Mississippi accused of discriminating against whites.
Adams is a career Voting Section lawyer. He is also a foot soldier in the conservative movement, hired into the Justice Department during the Bush administration under a process the department’s Inspector General concluded was improperly politicized.
Adams’s background helps explain how a relatively minor incident in Philadelphia during the 2008 presidential election involving two members of an anti-white fringe group blossomed into a political controversy for the Obama administration.
Adams previously had volunteered for the Republican National Lawyers Association, an off-shoot of the Republican National Committee that trains lawyers to fight on the often racially tinged frontlines of voting rights, and had been a Republican poll watcher in Florida for the 2004 presidential campaign.
As a Virginia lawyer, he once filed an ethics complaint in Florida against the brother of Hillary Clinton, and reviewed a manuscript of a book that questions the contemporary need for Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act that he is tasked with enforcing.
More recently, Adams asked a question at a meeting of the conservative Federalist Society in Washington that appeared skeptical of affirmative action, wrote a piece for the American Spectator that likened President Barack Obama’s world view to that of Nazi appeasers and argued on a conservative blogging network that health care reform is a threat to liberty.
Hired in 2005 by Bradley Schlozman, a Bush-era political appointee who drove out veteran Civil Rights Division attorneys perceived to be liberal, Adams appears to be one of the “right-thinking Americans” with conservative affiliations that Schlozman improperly seeded throughout the bureaucracy.
Civil service protections make his removal difficult, and Adams now is emblematic of the challenges facing Attorney General Eric Holder and Civil Rights Division chief Thomas Perez, who have vowed to “restore” the division to its historic mission of enforcing anti-discrimination laws protecting minorities, while adapting to new challenges.
Republican members of the House asked for an investigation into whether politics played a role in the dismissal of the case and asked GOP senators over the summer to delay Perez’s confirmation over the matter.
When asked about Adams’s role in the Black Panther case, Perez said in a briefing with reporters last week: ”I don’t want to get in the business of speculating as to why somebody brought something at what point.”
The complaint Adams drafted was also signed by Christopher Coates, chief of the Voting Section, and then-acting Assistant Attorney General Grace Chung Becker, a Bush political appointee who failed to win Senate confirmation over Democrats’ concerns she wasn’t committed to enforcing anti-discrimination laws to protect minorities.
“We clearly communicate our expectations [to Civil Rights Division attorneys]. If you meet those expectations that are transparent, then we want you to continue as long as you want to be there,” Perez added, in another session with reporters after a speech at the National Press Club last Friday. “And if you don’t, we hold you accountable.”
Adams compiled the lawsuit against the Black Panthers, two of whom stood outside a majority-black Philadelphia polling place in November 2008 in military-style fatigues, one of them carrying a nightstick. After the Obama DOJ dismissed of the most of the complaint in May, outraged conservatives called for investigations into whether politics played an improper role in the decision.
“That looks more like some sort of street fight than it does a polling place,” David Norcross, chairman of the Republican National Lawyers Association, said of a widely viewed video showing the incident.
Adams referred questions about his casework to the DOJ’s Office of Public Affairs. A spokesman said the public affairs office doesn’t normally provide a log of cases on which a particular attorney has worked.
A review of documents on the Civil Rights Division Web site indicates that more recently, Adams worked on complaint filed in March under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, under the Obama administration, alleging the town of Lake Park, Florida, denied black voters an equal opportunity to elect representatives of their choice. In October, the Southern District of Florida federal court entered a consent decree and judgment changing the way the town elected its commissioners.
Turning the Voting Rights Act on its head
The Section 11 (b) civil authority under which the Black Panthers lawsuit was filed is rarely used, since criminal acts of voter intimidation are usually referred for prosecution.
The first known 11 (b) case since the early days of the Voting Rights Act came in 1992, when the government filed suit against North Carolina Republicans and the campaign of then-Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) for sending threatening postcards to 100,000 mostly black voters with misleading information about election laws.*
There were no more 11 (b) cases until 2005. Then, the Bush administration filed a voter intimidation lawsuit against black officials in Noxubee County, Miss., alleging systematic discrimination against white voters. It marked the first time the DOJ had used authority of the Voting Rights Act to allege voting discrimination by blacks against whites.
While the government won the Noxubee case and even Bush administration critics agree it had merit, they argue that pursing the case was a misuse of limited department resources. Critics also say the manner in which the Bush DOJ used section 11 (b) turned the spirit of the Voting Rights Act on its head. The 1965 act was passed amid incidents of beatings and harassment in the South by white mobs and Ku Klux Klan members against people demonstrating for black voting rights.
“Sadly, the only two [section 11 (b)] cases that have been brought by the [Bush] department have been on behalf of whites,” J. Gerald Hebert, a former acting chief of the Voting Section of the Civil Rights Division, told Main Justice.
The Government Accountability Office, meantime, recently highlighted a Section 11 (b) voter intimidation case that the Bush DOJ chose not to pursue. The case involved allegations that officials in an unidentified state had intimidated black voters.
The GAO didn’t give further details, but Perez said in recent congressional testimony the division had opened an investigation into the incident cited in the report. He declined to elaborate, citing the ongoing probe.
Hebert said in order to pursue a voter intimidation case, there should be depositions from voters who felt intimidated and the actions should be shown to be part of a larger campaign.
The Black Panther complaint provided little evidence to support the government’s allegation that the group conducted a coordinated campaign to intimidate voters, Obama Department of Justice officials have told Republican lawmakers.
“Frankly, the Philadelphia case [against the New Black Panthers] was on shaky ground from the beginning and was largely, I think, filed by the previous administration for the new administration to have to clean up, putting them in a difficult position,” said Hebert, a critic of the Bush administration’s management of the Justice Department who has written extensively about Section 11(b) for his current employer, the Campaign Legal Center.
Spakovsky: ‘political hacks” at DOJ
So far, no voters registered in the majority-black precinct in Philadelphia where the incident occurred have come forward publicly to say they were intimidated. The complaints have come instead from white Republican poll watchers.
The conservative-dominated U.S. Commission on Civil Rights is investigating the DOJ’s handling of the Black Panther case, and Adams has fought to obtain permission to assist its investigation, over objections from his superiors at the Justice Department.
Yet conservatives have raised no questions about the background or possible motivations of Adams, who compiled the case. Instead they have attacked the career DOJ lawyers who recommended dismissing it.
“Those two lawyers, Steve Rosenbaum and Loretta King, are two of the worst political hacks to be found in the career ranks of the Civil Rights Division,” wrote former Bush Civil Rights Division official Hans A. von Spakovsky in an opinion piece for National Review Online.
House Judiciary Committee members Lamar Smith (R-Texas) and Frank Wolf (R-Va.) have written letters to the DOJ asking whether it “improperly considered partisan politics” in dismissing the Black Panther case.
Spakovsky worked closely with Schlozman. He helped oversee the Noxubee case in Mississippi and assisted in the controversial purge of veteran lawyers in the division perceived to be liberal. The Democratic-controlled Senate in 2007 refused to confirm Spakovsky as a Federal Election Commission member.
Spakovsky has also worked at the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights for commissioner Todd Gaziano, an official at the conservative Heritage Foundation who’s been the driving force behind the push to investigate the Black Panthers matter.
Von Spakovsky told Main Justice said he hadn’t spoken with Adams about the case. “I know Christian just like I know all the lawyers, but I have not talked to him about the case,” he said.
The Obama DOJ, he added, has “not offered any reason to justify its dismissal, which leads you to the obvious conclusion that there were political and other reasons for doing it.”
In fact, Assistant Attorney General for Legislative Affairs Ron Weich has outlined the reasons for the dismissal in letters to Republican members of Congress. Read his response here (scroll down).
I’m Just a Media Guy
On election day in November 2008, a call came into the Philadelphia office of the John McCain for President campaign. Two black men in military-style fatigues and berets were standing outside a polling station. One of them was carrying a nightstick.
Stephen Robert Morse, a young freelance journalist who’d been hired by the local Republican Party to document potential irregularities at the polls, jumped in a car and sped to the apartment building at 1221 Fairmount Street, in a majority black neighborhood of Philadelphia.
“Dude, you got my back?” Morse said to a companion. He walked toward the two members of the New Black Panthers and began speaking for his video.
“Hi, I’m here at 1221 Fairmount in Philadelphia and there’s a guy with a billy club right here,” Morse said. “So, do we have any problems here? What’s going on? Everything okay?”
“Everything’s fine,” said Minister King Samir Shabazz, the Black Panther holding the night stick.
“Okay, I’m just, I’m just making sure,” Morse said.
Shabazz asked Morse to identify himself.
“I’m just a media guy,” Morse said. “I’m with the University of Pennsylvania. Who are you with? Sorry?”
“Ah … security,” Shabazz said. “Just wondering why everybody’s taking pictures, that’s all.”
“I think it may be a little intimidating that you have a stick in your hand, that’s all. I mean, that’s a weapon. I mean, I’m a concerned citizen,” Morse said.
“So are we. That’s why we’re here.”
“Okay, but you have a nightstick.”
“So what? You have a camera phone.”
“I have a camera phone, which is not a weapon,” Morse said.
Only 34 whites live in Precinct 4 in Philadelphia out of a total population of 970, according to census data. But there was a sea of white faces there that day, mainly Republican lawyers who’d come to monitor the polling station in what, since the disputed 2000 presidential election, has become an election-day ritual for both parties.
One of the white Republican poll watchers called police, and the nightstick-wielding Shabazz was shooed away without apparent incident. The other Black Panther, Jerry Jackson, who’d been issued a poll watching certificate by the Philadelphia County Board of Elections, remained.
Although both Shabazz and Jackson had been recorded in an earlier National Geographic documentary calling whites “cracker” and other derogatory terms, no racial epithets were recorded on Morse’s video in Philadelphia.
Then Fox News arrived.
Fox reporter Rick Leventhal interviewed an unidentified Republican poll watcher who told of a more racially charged scene.
The Black Panthers “told us not to come outside, because a black man is going to win this election no matter what,” the unidentified Republican poll watcher said on the Fox camera. “So, as I came back outside to see, the nightstick turns around and says, you know, ‘We’re tired of white supremacy,’ and starts tapping the nightstick in his hand.”
Fox reporter Rick Leventhal said: “The Black Panthers were there to intimidate white voters from coming to this polling location?”
“Or anyone who’s in their way. You know, I don’t know. A guy standing in front of a polling place with a night stick is a factor for all voters. Maybe little old ladies don’t want to walk through that,” the Republican poll watcher said.
The video that Morse made was uploaded to YouTube through a Web site called electionjournal.org, run by a Republican operative named Mike Roman.
Later that evening, Barack Obama won the election, becoming the nation’s first African-American president.
On YouTube, viewers started clicking Morse’s video. It eventually logged more than a 1.2 million views.
Republican poll watchers complain
In January, 13 days before Obama’s inauguration, the Civil Rights Division filed a civil complaint alleging that Shabazz and Jackson hurled “racial insults” and threats at both black and white individuals in Philadelphia, and “made menacing and intimidating gestures” directed at “individuals who were present to aid voters.”
Those “individuals who were present to aid voters” appear to be a reference to the white Republican poll watchers who reported the incident and gave interviews to Fox News. So far, no voters of any race who were registered in that precinct have come forward publicly to say they were intimidated.
The New Black Panther Party made an easy target for Republicans. Characterized as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Shabazz and Jackson had been videotaped by National Geographic for a documentary calling whites “cracker” and other denigrating terms.
The black separatist group takes its inspiration from, but is not related to, the 1960s Black Panthers, the original “black power” movement.
Republicans have suggested the Justice Department dismissed the case because the New Black Panther Party helped get Obama elected. “It just smacks of some kind of a deal or a thank-you payback,” said Norcross of the Republican National Lawyers Association.
But a review of Shabazz’s comments before the election indicate he wasn’t an Obama fan.
“[Obama] is a puppet on a string. I don’t support no black man running for white politics. I will not vote for who will be the next slavemaster,” he told the Philadelphia Daily News days before the election, according to Politico.
The New Black Panther Party could not be reached for comment.
Washington Times “Exclusive”
After the Black Panthers failed to contest the lawsuit earlier this year, a default judgment was entered. The case then went to then-acting Civil Rights Division chief Loretta King for review.
A career DOJ lawyer, King decided one incident didn’t constitute an orchestrated campaign or pattern to deny voting rights, the usual criteria for deploying federal resources in litigation.
She also had concerns about seeking legal action in part based on how the men were dressed, and noted that one of them – Jackson – held an official poll watching certificate, giving him a reason to be on the premises. She recommended dismissal, a decision approved by her supervisor, Associate Attorney General Thomas Perrelli, an Obama political appointee.
The DOJ sought and won an injunction against Shabazz prohibiting him from carrying a weapon at polling stations through Nov. 15, 2012.
On May 29, the Washington Times published an “exclusive” that said Justice Department “political appointees overruled career lawyers” in dismissing the case.
“Career lawyers pursued the case for months, including obtaining an affidavit from a prominent 1960s civil rights activist who witnessed the confrontation and described it as ‘the most blatant form of voter intimidation’ that he had seen, even during the voting rights crisis in Mississippi a half-century ago,” the Times added.
The affidavit came from Bartle Bull, who worked for Robert F. Kennedy’s campaign in New York 40 years ago but has since been better known as a novelist. Bull supported John McCain for president – a fact not noted by the Washington Times.
After the Washington Times piece, Bull popped up in an interview with Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly. “The senior lawyer working on this case, Christian Adams, said to me, ‘if this is not a case of intimidation, nothing is,’” Bull told O’Reilly.
Bull also said he’d heard the Black Panthers in Philadelphia say: “Now you’ll see what it is like to be ruled by a black man, cracker.”
And Rep. Wolf gave a speech on the House floor in July excoriating Holder.
“Martin Luther King did not die to have people in jack boots block polling places,” Wolf said. “I question Eric Holder’s commitment to voting rights.”
Standoff over subpoenas
Now the matter lies in a standoff between the Justice Department and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, which has subpoenaed the DOJ for internal communications about the New Black Panther Party case.
The DOJ has resisted complying with the subpoenas, citing a Supreme Court precedent that protects the department’s internal work products from disclosure. But Adams has argued he is obligated to comply with the commission’s inquiry.
The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights’ general counsel, David Blackwood – who like Adams and other staff members on the commission is a Republican National Lawyers Association member – wrote the DOJ on Dec. 18 to say the commission had agreed for now to postpone depositions of DOJ officials.
The commission will set new deposition dates for the department employees in the next few weeks, and may consider subpoenaing other department personnel during the same time.
According to a plan circulated among members of the commission by Todd Gaziano, possible deponents in January and February 2010 include Thomas Perrelli, Loretta King, and civil appellate section chief Diana Flynn. The plan also calls for a hearing in Washington in early 2010.
The commission’s final report is scheduled to be released next summer, in advance of the midterm elections.
Mary Jacoby contributed to this report.
*Experts consulted by Main Justice indicated that the 1992 case was the first Section 11 (b) case they knew about. A reader has pointed out there was a case in 1966, and the language has been updated. While a previous version of this story called the Campaign Legal Center “liberal-leaning,” it is a non-partisan organization whose president served as general counsel for John McCain’s campaign in 2000 and 2008. Adams read the manuscript of, but did not edit, the book on the Voting Rights Act.
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We return to our Department of Justice portrait series, with our eye now trained on the wall decor in the office of Tony West, the Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Division.
West, a California native, hewed to his roots. Opposite his desk hangs a portrait of Joseph McKenna, the 42nd Attorney General - and the first top cop from the Golden State. McKenna was AG from 1897 to 1898, leaving the Justice Department for a seat on the Supreme Court, which he filled until 1925. Earlier in his career, the Republican served in the House.
In an earlier post, we noted that Solicitor General Elena Kagan stepped outside tradition by bedecking her walls with official photos, instead of portrait paintings. Kagan chose a photo of her mentor, the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Kudos, we said. Turns out, her inspiration was West, whose office is two floors directly beneath her own.
The first time Kagan visited West’s office she noticed a couple things, West told us. Kagan mentioned that her view was better — you can see the Supreme Court from the Solicitor General’s perch. And she also seemed intrigued by a framed photo of Robert F. Kennedy that West had hung on the wall adjacent his desk.
The younger brother of President John F. Kennedy was Attorney General from 1961 to 1964, when he resigned to run successfully for a Senate seat from New York. The Department of Justice headquarters in Washington is named after RFK. Bobby Kennedy was assassinated in 1968 as he was running for the Democratic nomination for president.
Kennedy’s portrait is a big catch, and naturally, it was already spoken for — his likeness hangs in Attorney General Eric Holder’s conference room. So West went with the next best thing: Kennedy’s photo. Kagan liked the idea so much, she had the official photos of four former SGs and Marshall framed and hung in her own office.
But the story doesn’t end there. When West saw the finished version of Kagan’s Marshall photo, he decided he wanted one of his own. When it’s done, a Thurgood Marshall photo will displace McKenna in the Civil Division chief office.
The Californian is going in conference room, West said.