The criticism of Joe Biden when as a senator he worked with racist southern senators in order to get their votes for civil rights legislation reminds me of a political lesson I learned as an attorney in the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice. It was 1966 and I was just a few months into my first job after law school. My area of responsibility was Southeastern Mississippi, which included Kemper County, the site of frequent physical and verbal intimidation of blacks who tried to register to vote.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 authorized the Attorney General to appoint Federal Examiners to register voters in areas where county voting registrars refused to register Blacks and redneck racists intimidated Blacks who wanted to register by threats of physical violence, beatings, cross burnings and termination of employment. The population of Kemper County was seventy-five to eighty percent Black. But only a small number of Blacks were registered to vote.
The evidence cried out for appointment of Federal Examiners. I wrote a memorandum advocating such appointment to my boss, John Doar, Assistant Attorney General in charge of the Civil Rights Division. The memorandum cited abundant reports of beatings and verbal intimidation of Blacks who tried to register, of registrars refusing to allow them to register and of their being turned away by sheriff deputies at the courthouse steps. One witness said that as he approached the courthouse a deputy stepped forward and said, “What you want here, boy? Nothing here for you but a jail cell in the basement.” I was confident that my memorandum proved beyond any doubt that the extent of pervasive discrimination in Kemper County justified appointment of Examiners. My research had been impeccable and nothing had been overlooked. I submitted my memorandum, confident that the Attorney General would agree to certify Kemper County.
Or so I thought.
Weeks passed by and I heard nothing. Then one day my section chief said, “Grab your file. We have an appointment with Doar.”
We entered Doar’s office. Doar and two or three supervising attorneys were seated around him.
Doar said, “Kerry, I have read your memorandum. It is a fine piece of work.”
I was delighted to receive that compliment from my boss. Justice would be done.
“Do you know,” he asked, “who has to approve our budget?”
“Congress,” I responded, wondering what that had to do with certification of Kemper County.
Doar continued, “Do you know who sits on the Senate Appropriations and Judiciary Committees?
“Senator Eastland of Mississippi chairs the Judiciary Committee. Senator Stennis of Mississippi is a ranking member of the Appropriations Committee.”
Everyone’s eyes were on me, waiting to see if I was getting the drift of his remarks, waiting to see if the cartoon light bulb would illuminate over my head. But it did not click on. I remained silent.
Doar continued. “Senator Stennis’ family home is in Kemper County.”
The light went on. In all my hours of research I had failed to discover that Kemper County had been the Stennis family home for generations. And if I had discovered that fact, I think that as politically naïve as I was, I would not have appreciated its political significance.
I had made a good case for justice, but I had ignored politics.
I returned to my office, disappointed and disillusioned. It was clear that the Blacks of Kemper County would continue to be beaten, threatened and disenfranchised in order to keep the Civil Rights Division from being fiscally punished by racist United States Senators.
I was a naïve young attorney.
And I believe it is naive to criticize Biden for having worked with racist senators
in order to get needed legislation passed.
Sometimes you have to sleep with the devil.
(Adapted from Policy Sci 101, chapter 33 of Dear Jeff, a memoir)
© Kerry Gough 2020
(Kemper County was not certified for Federal Voting Examiners until October 31, 1974, more than seven years after my memorandum had urged certification. God only knows how many Blacks were beaten and denied the right to vote in those seven years.)