Don Jelinek: There was one unfinished piece of business from Mississippi. After I arrived in Selma, I started investigating what had happened to my ex-girlfriend, Molly -- why they shot into her house after she visited the "agriculture people." I went into town to the State Agriculture Office.
Bruce Hartford: Now this is back in her county?
Don Jelinek: No, no, but it was her county that first alerted me. I investigated it in Selma, assuming I could at least start here and not have to travel back to Mississippi.
Bruce Hartford: So you're in Selma and you go to the State or Federal?
Don Jelinek: State, because I didn't know better. I drove to the county agriculture office in town. "I'd like to talk to someone about allotments," I said to an elderly Southern lady sitting behind a desk, a Confederate flag behind her. "Well, then," she slyly smiled, "I suggest y'all walk down the street a piece and on your right will be the U. S. (sing-songing the two letters) Department of Agriculture. They can tell you all about the Yankee program." She smiled again and dropped her eyes, indicating I was dismissed.
Fifteen minutes later, I approached a small storefront office with an American flag on the wall. (Here, you noticed such things.) A gracious Southern gentleman greeted me. (The fact that the office was federal didn't change the cast of characters, always Southerners.) He explained the program to me in simple terms: This was one of President Franklin Roosevelt's original innovations, he said, created when farmers were going bankrupt . . . to keep excess cotton and other crops off the market and thereby raise prices. This was accomplished, he told me, by providing government aid to those farmers who agreed to not plant a certain part of their acreage and to "plow under" some part of the already planted crops awaiting harvest.
"Is a lot of money involved?" I asked, remembering the commotion caused when I cost the Holly Springs movie theater owner his night's receipts for the new Elvis film.
"I suppose it's in the billions," said the official, "but it's paid to farmers all over the country -- even in your New York," he chuckled. (I again wondered how everyone knew I was from New York, again forgetting that most Southerners assumed all civil righters were from New York.) "It's not just paid here in the South," he assured me, with a wink.
Is enough paid here in the South to justify trying to murder Molly for just asking about it? I wondered but did not ask.
I realized I had to learn the history, which I started that night by reading Schlesinger's, The Age of Roosevelt.
The Great Depression of the 1930's combined with a drastic drop in world
cotton prices, created even more severe hardships, and necessitated the proud Southerner to call for help from the Yankees. The New Deal of Franklin Roosevelt legislated federal controls, restricting the amount of land in production of cotton and other crops, and designed to achieve a better balance between supply and demand: money for not planting: subsidies and price supports, mandatory emergency soil conservation practices, and crop diversification. In effect, the cotton growers would be paid for not growing cotton, and be paid even more money for saving the soil they had depleted over the years.
The laws guaranteed an income for cotton producers and essentially subsidized the cotton industry. The sole condition was an agreement to plant only that cotton acreage that was allotted -- the Cotton Allotment. Over the years, because of a deteriorating world market, even more drastically reduced cotton planting was ordered. Yet, dominated by Southern representatives in Congress (many of whom were large plantation owners), the farm producers were paid even more for non-production and for using the land for other crops and soil conservation.
But there were also civil rights provisions in the Agriculture programs, thanks to FDR's lefty Vice-President, who had been the New Deal's U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. Tenant farmers, who paid a flat rate after the crop, as well as sharecroppers, who received a percentage of the crop, (both called here, "Sharecroppers") were being thrown off the land. With less land to cultivate, Plantation Owners were paid for letting their land sit idle -- and without much need for sharecroppers. So, the new law also provided for the sharecropper to receive that amount of all the benefits of the subsidy proportionate to that part of the land he would have worked had the land been planted. If the plantation owner deprived the farmer of these benefits, the USDA could -- theoretically -- withhold the plantation owner's share of the benefits.
How did it come to pass that the South, the Civil War losers, ended up in control of that which concerned them the most: the Agriculture Committees of the U.S. Congress, and great influence over the USDA? The South lost the War but won the Congress by becoming a one-party region: the party not of Republican, Abe Lincoln: the-then Democratic Party. Without two-party contests, the white Democrats -- Southern Congressmen and Senators -- because of seniority rule, became chairmen or occupied strategic places on Congressional committees that were most important to them.
The manipulation of the agriculture monies was effortless. The amount of land allotted blacks for planting was less than for whites and less than strict formulas required. The subsidy payments for blacks wasn't paid at all, or was underpaid, or paid directly to the county store for the plantation owner to "adjust their account." The net result was that a white farmer and a black farmer could own or farm (or not farm) equal amounts of equal quality adjacent land, but the white would prosper while the black went bankrupt or ended up working for the white: collusion between Plantation Owners and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Bruce, did you knew anything about the Agriculture stuff before you went South? Bruce Hartford: No. Not before I went South, but it was a big deal in all the rural counties once I was there, it was one of the major issues.
Don Jelinek: Well, it initially got past me. And, I learned there was more USDA problems: the FHA, no loans; and the Extension Service, no information.
Bruce Hartford: Right, or training.
Don Jelinek: And there's the food (to be discussed later) which comes via the USDA also: free surplus commodities, which was taken away from active civil rights counties, and substituted with food stamps, or no program at all.
Bruce Hartford: No program at all was more common.
Don Jelinek: Yes, but very often food stamps, because people couldn't afford them.
The deeper I plunged into the agriculture programs, the more insight I gained into the South, apart from segregation and brutality -- and the more I was forced to re-evaluate the work I was doing. The Negro that the civil rights movement was all about was a farmer. Before we began, he was poor, lived in shacks without heat or toilets, had no medical facilities, and feared losing even that. Also, he couldn't vote for President, Governor, or Sheriff. Now, after two
Civil Rights Acts, immeasurable registration drives, legislative and court victories, he was still poor, lived in shacks without heat or toilets, and had no medical facilities -- but now he could vote (though he could not yet elect a black).
But the vote that would do him the most good would be to elect the head of the county Agricultural Stabilization & Conservation Service, the ASCS, which made "delicate decisions affecting the size of a farmer's allotment, on adjustments of program benefits between landlord and tenant, and on the appeals of farmers objecting to cuts in allotments."
Blacks -- on paper (ie, by U.S. statutes) -- were eligible to vote in the "Cotton Elections," which chose the panel which determined cotton subsidy payments. The federal law allowed every sharecropper and every tenant-farmer (as well as landlords) who had a share in the crop allotment to vote for the ASCS County Committee. The ASCS, whose programs and payments "as measured in dollar expenditures or impact on residents or both" dwarfed the regular county government operations, was an elected body. No wonder a black farmer later told me he'd rather elect a black head of the county ASCS than a black sheriff or Governor. But the vote -- the "cotton-vote" -- was taken away in much the same manner as the vote for public officials. Like every other power structure in the South, and despite the right of blacks to vote, even in counties with numerical majorities exceeding 80 percent, the Southern ASCS structure was totally white. The U.S. Secretary of Agriculture appointed the State ASCS, but through 1964 had never appointed a black in the South. Nor had a black ever been elected to the County ASCS, where all the power resided.
1966 was to be the big civil rights cotton year. The growing agricultural sophistication of the Movement was now enhanced by working with old civil rights agriculture pros like the National Sharecroppers Fund (NSF) for a major campaign in the forthcoming September agriculture elections. The summer volunteers would have two summer months to canvass. There was money to correct voter lists, obtain ballots and file appeals when necessary. The black farmers would be ready before September rolled around.
But, suddenly, on July 10, 1966, the Alabama State ASCS announced the elections would be held 30 days earlier than usual, on August 16, 1966. (From 1960 to 1964 the elections in had been held in the fall.)
A few days later, a delegation headed by Jac Wassermann, the Southern head of the Sharecropper Fund, were sitting in my bedroom asking me to delay the ASCS elections. Still believing the problem was Southerners -- Southern federal employees -- I naively telephoned Washington. The phone call produced a lowly bureaucrat who only half-heartedly agreed to look into the problem.
I decided on a Kunstler-style course of action to attract attention by the USDA to the manipulations of the corrupt Southern federal employees. I would file a "political" lawsuit, to obtain a political goal instead of a judicial decision. The traditional lawyers approach, I had become aware, did not work, at least in the short run, and the short run was the only running I had learned to believe in. I decided to package a lawsuit that would attract national attention and gain the ear of the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture.
The litigation could have been filed in Montgomery, Alabama (where everything had taken place) but because the USDA was both local and national, the suit could also be filed in the nation's capitol. And it was.
I knew I would find the necessary black farmers to sign up for the ASCS election suit, I knew Stokely and SNCC would join, but the key to success in this civil rights venture was still the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. It was for an audience with him that I drove to his headquarters.
Bruce Hartford: You know, I tried to get SCLC to take this up, after Selma, when most of SCLC attention was focused on Chicago. I was proposing that SCLC start organizing around this whole ASCS issue. I wasn't even thinking about the food stamps commodities and extension service, but as I recall, each county would elect a board of five people, and theoretically, any landowner and sharecropper was eligible to vote in the election, but, of course, blacks had never been allowed to vote in the election. And then each county's Board determined the allotment: You don't plant 50% of your land and we'll give you this much, or that
kind of thing. And of course the whites were getting all the money and the blacks were getting screwed.
Don Jelinek: One of the blacks told me that he ended up having to work for a guy who had the same amount of land that he did.
Bruce Hartford: Yeah, but I never could get SCLC interested in doing it, except Al Turner and Shirley Mesher. Well, go ahead and continue, because by this time I was in Mississippi.
In June of 1966, Dr. King had marched down the heart of Mississippi alongside Stokely Carmichael, when the chant "Black Power" began. Two months after the Meredith March, I drove into Atlanta, Georgia, near the place of his birth and where his father still preached at the Ebenezer Baptist Church. I had met Dr. King casually, but had never spoken seriously with him. I had dealt with SCLC in Mississippi, and much more since I arrived in Alabama. Paul Bokulich was a favorite SCLC worker, and I worked in the Alabama counties most important to SCLC: Dallas (Selma), Greene, and Montgomery.
Dorothy Cotton, a longtime (and only female) SCLC Executive Staff member, who had marched with him in the most perilous times, set up our meeting. It began in SCLC's Atlanta office, a storefront shambles in the poor black section of town. I expected a paragon of order to match Dr. King's calm, neat appearance, but chaos and anarchy were all I saw. The various phones were ringing and only occasionally answered. Mail was strewn over desks and overlapping to the floor. (I picked up an envelope from the U.S. Attorney General himself, and placed it on a desk.) Everyone seemed to be yelling at the small, stocky, light-skinned black man in an open-collared white shirt and smart grey slacks, distinguishing him from most others who were wearing workshirts and jeans. Dr. King, then 38, caught all the conversations on the wing.
"Can you speak at such and such college next month?
"On the 16th?"
"I think so."
"Will you endorse so and so for election?"
"I try not to endorse anyone, see if its necessary."
"How about dinner tonight with Rev. Somebody?"
"Will you do a guest sermon at ..., appear at a fund raising dinner . . ., meet so and so?"
Bruce Hartford: Was this during a board meeting?
Don Jelinek: I don't know which is a board meeting, everybody was there.
Bruce Hartford: Oh, an executive staff meeting. Were there 30 or 40 people or five or ten?
Don Jelinek: 30 or 40.
Bruce Hartford: All right, sounds like an SCLC board meeting then.
Don Jelinek: OK. Actually, more than 30 or 40.
All this was going on while I was ignored, except for a "Hiya" from a few staffers I knew. But I can't get any attention or get noticed. And then Dorothy just starts yelling: "Martin, I told you he was coming, and you agreed." It doesn't work, so she says, "Don was Paul Bokulich's lawyer." (Paul was in Greene County, an SCLC favorite, and the one that I got freed in that Alabama Supreme Court phenomenon.)
When she said I'm Paul's lawyer, people applauded. I really got some notice. And so at this point, I start describing what I came for but I got out three words when his staff begins pulling at him again.
I looked helplessly at Dorothy who, as a SCLC veteran, could yell at him,
"Martin! Donald, Paul Bokulich's lawyer, has come all the way from Selma (the magic words) and you should talk to him in quiet."
"Okay," he yelled back over the roar, "Andy [Young], Ralph [Abernathy]," and he named a few others, "Come across the street to the cafe, I want you to hear something." Calm reigned in a quiet black cafe as we sat at the rear table, set aside for private SCLC conferences. Coffee and doughnuts were quickly placed and the waitress absented herself. No introductions. I was asked to make a presentation, but after a few sentences the leader interrupted,
"Why Washington? Why bring the farmers? What are the logistics: cars, funds, food, sleeping accommodations, bail, if needed?" I had never thought about those issues and I was impressed by his humanity and political acumen in dealing with basic needs.
I had no refined plans yet, not even farmers signed up, just a format for direct action. I admitted the lack of logistical planning and began the laborious explanation of the cotton programs. I was just in the middle of the subsidy part when Dr. King abruptly asked to borrow my N.Y Times and got up, apparently to go to the men's room. I again looked helplessly at Dorothy who urged me to continue. Feeling quite discouraged, I resumed. Fifteen minutes later, Dr. King returned, motioned me to continue while Abernathy whispered in his ear, presumably a summary of what he had missed.
I had waited for Dr. King to return and I said, "Dr. King: the Farmers will tell you they'd rather get one of their own elected to the Cotton Board than elected as Sheriff or Governor . . . " Because it's more important to them."
Bruce Hartford: Absolutely true, yeah.
Don Jelinek: That clicked. And I said, "This is not an exaggeration, I could bring you the people. Let's face it," I said, "our constituency are farmers." I stopped, realizing how presumptuous is was to be saying this to Dr. King. I mildly continued that integration is very important, but the farmers can't afford to eat or sleep in the Holiday Inn, or do most of the things that we've gotten them access to. Voting, of course, is critical, but they need money, they need to live, and this money is being stolen from them by the Feds, courtesy of Orville Friedman, the liberal head of the USDA. From the top, they are allowing the stealing of the cotton money.
Bruce Hartford: Well, I'm not sure I really agree with that.
Don Jelinek: I did, and still do.
Bruce Hartford: It was the local boards that were doing this to them.
Don Jelinek: Yeah, but only with USDA acquiescence. Dr. King was now carefully listening to me. I told what I knew about the history of Southern control of the USDA. Then I concluded, "This is real important. I would really appreciate if SCLC would come into the case as a named plaintiff, allow me to represent you, and allow me to put your name on press releases. You see, we're going to DC as a first step in a campaign against the USDA -- next comes the food programs." I said, "We're not looking to make big strides in this one, we're going to make a slight dent to show the Plantation Owners that we can get control in this area."
"What about SNCC and your friend Stokley?" Dr. King asked, referring to tensions over him halting the middle Selma March.
Bruce Hartford: He knew you were a friend of Stokely?
Don Jelinek: . . . or Dorothy had told him.
"Stokely knows I'm here (as if that was an answer)," I replied. "SNCC, like your people, have worked on the ASCS problems and will be present. Stokely hopes," I exaggerated, "that you'll join him in Washington, D.C. for the hearing." Dr. King gave me a smile of appreciation for my diplomacy.
I believe they had decided before I arrived and that the meeting was to size me up. I apparently passed because after a few nods, Dr. King announced approval. I could use their name and Dr. King would appear "if possible and appropriate."
I thanked everyone, smiled at Dorothy and left for SNCC in Atlanta to keep my neutrality intact.
Time was against us. Within days we needed a technical lawsuit to explain the cotton program and its abuses . . . and the need to postpone the elections, now a few weeks away. And to find farmer-plaintiffs, explain the lawsuit to them, reassure or acknowledge their fears, sign them up, convince them to come to D.C. and interview them for their evidence about the programs. The final lawsuit was H. O. William et al. v. Orville L. Freeman et al., (D.C., 1966)), with 36 farmer-Plaintiffs from 23 cities in 11 Alabama counties -- each, a "Negro, poor, a sharecropper or tenant farmer or small farm owner and dependent on cotton farming for a livelihood." Each depended on the ASCS, which cheated them out of their rights, including the right to serve on the ASCS itself.
Kennedy liberal, Orville L. Freeman, as Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, was the major defendant. We filed our lawsuit in D.C. to compel the USDA to restrain their Alabama affiliate from advancing the date of the premature elections. A hearing was set for August 9, 1966, one week before the new date for the elections.
In the interim, a USDA official leaked to Jac Wassermann of NSF (who gave it to me), a leaked secret report of the USDA which was withheld from President Lyndon Johnson -- amazing, secret even from the President of the United States. The cover page read as follows:
January 21, 1966
To: The Secretary [of Agriculture]
From: William M. Seaborn, Assistant to the Secretary
Attached is the year-end report on civil rights activities in the Department in 1965. If you wish to transmit this report to the White House,you may wish to omit the sections entitled evaluation /s/ Wm. M. Seaborn" (my emphasis)
Not tell the President! I was staggered. The report contained massive confessions of USDA discrimination -- not to be seen by President Lyndon Johnson. The evaluations had, in fact, been omitted from the Presidential copy. In some undefined way, I eliminated Secretary Freeman from responsibility for holding back this information, perhaps he hadn't even seen the report.
The report was filled with statements of success, interwoven with "Evaluations" which contradicted the success. It admitted how racially unfairly the programs were administered and acknowledged many of the charges in our lawsuit.
I wrote a letter to Secretary Freeman outlining the proof we would offer, excerpted quotes from the secret report, and flew to D.C. in advance of the farmers.
As I had hoped, U.S. District Judge Howard Corcoran, in a pre-hearing conference, voiced hope that since we were all on the same side, a conference between both sides might resolve the issue with a compromise: a civil rights plea-bargain. As I had written to the Secretary, "... the real 'bad guys' are the Southern racists hiding behind Federal badges [and Federal payroll]. ... This should not be an adversary proceeding."
On the eve of the hearing, 18 top officials of the USDA sat at a table long enough for all 18 to face us directly. "Us" was me, two local D.C. counsel, and a black USDA "Civil Rights" official, who uncomfortably sat on our side of the table. I wasn't yet politically sophisticated enough to realize the positive impact the meeting would have had with some farmers present, plus Stokely and Dr. King. I was still at a point where I felt more could be achieved if we "professionals" could talk alone. The Missionary-Bwana in me was much alive. However, I did have everyone's statements and affidavits: documentation of discrimination and brutality "caused" by USDA local employees.
An undersecretary, gracious and smiling, urged me to open the meeting. I welcomed the opportunity, addressing each of the 18 personally and formally, introduced my colleagues. I spoke for three-and-one-half hours as I rattled off specific events, names, dates, produced documents, and quoted the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. I hinted at, but avoided mentioning, the secret report. I was hoarse and choked up as I saw my goal in sight: I had brought the message to the center of power, the belly of the government, where action is accomplished by lifting a telephone . . . and all we asked was the delaying of a date.
"Well, that's all I have to say," I said, as I looked down at my mass of papers strewn over the table. There was an appreciative pause. I accepted the congratulations of my co-counsel and the embarrassed "Civil Rights" Agriculture man. I felt lightheaded as I waited for a response from the 18 who exchanged glances waiting for the designated speaker to begin.
A USDA official also congratulated me for my presentation and described me as "the type of young man we need, who keeps us on our toes." He smiled at me as he juxtaposed a few more cliches, "Rome wasn't built in a day" and "All will come to those who wait." (I hoped we had waited long enough and that was his point;
we were ready for the reward.)
"There is a very delicate balance between the relationship of the federal government and the Southern states. If we are ever going to bring about a change down there, we have to go very slowly and very cautiously. . . . We know all of what you've said . . . and more. We've had our office of the Inspector General investigating all of these incidents you've described."
He nodded to the Inspector General who grunted affirmation of his thoroughness by the stacks of neatly piled looseleafs in front of him. Now the speaker changed his tone.
"Great changes have been accomplished, but you people can never have enough. Look how far we've gone. We must learn to live with the Alabama whites or else we can never deal with them. What does a year mean to wait for the 1967 ASCS election when it can be done right? Under no circumstances will the USDA overrule a decision of a state ASCS, and we doubt a court can, or would, order us to do so. I'm sorry."
I was numb as each of the 18, rising to announce the conclusion of the meeting and their compliance with the judge's request, came to our side of the table and shook hands and made some reassuring remarks. I shook hands with each of them.
We left and I thanked my two co-counsel who, either more corrupt or less naive than I, were not especially surprised or upset. I went to my room and poured out the story on the phone to Stokely. It's not the Southerners or federal bureaucratic incompetence. Stokeley gave me the we've-been-telling-you- this-for-years" snort, but he sounded more surprised than he wanted to admit. Dr. King made no comment when I called him, except to thank me for the immediate information.
Later than night I called UPI and related the story of the secret report. Despite my intemperate language about "crackers in federal uniforms," UPI released the story across the country of a "super-secret Agriculture Department self-appraisal of its shortcomings in racial matters [being used] in a ground breaking federal suit." The article forced a direct response from Secretary Freeman that a delay in the ASCS elections "would disrupt efforts already made to run the elections fairly." The ASCS was breaking out of the darkness. On the very day of the hearings, the Alabama State ASCS announced their decision to have "a member of its civil rights advisory committee sit in on all future meetings."
The hearing began in the morning of August 9, 1966 with the black farmers, dressed in their Sunday best, seated in a federal courtroom in the nation's capital, joined by a dark-suited Stokely Carmichael. Backing them up were the various Agriculture civil rights organizations, including Jac Wasserman and his National Sharecroppers Fund.
I opened for our side by reciting the previous night's presentation, accompanied by a soft chorus of amens and ah hahs, so soft that the judge could not get himself to silence them. Judge Corcoran was disturbed by the failure of the negotiations (though the USDA had taken responsibility by reiterating to him that they "would not interfere" with the state system). He also begrudged the clogging of his already overbooked court calendar -- and he was uncomfortable with the presence of the farmers, as if it were a deliberate attempt to pressure him -- which, of course, it was. At one point he chastised me for keeping my clients from their crops.
"Let's try to hurry things along so all these people can go home." The judge looked disapprovingly in the direction of Stokely Carmichael, and couldn't help noticing the large number of press. He further noted the significance of one of our first offers of evidence, a U.S. Civil Rights Commission report on discrimination in federal agriculture programs. (I privately damned that austere body for refusing to testify about their own report until I forcibly subpoenaed
them: "We're not supposed to take sides," they had angrily explained to me.) Then I read selected portions of the "secret report" and then slowly read the cover page. I was pleased to see the Judge sneaking a look at his copy of that first page to see if I had exaggerated the deceive-the-President language.
Still, there was an air of detachment and unreality about the proceeding, until I called my first witness, a slight, 50-year-old black Alabama farmer who had tried to run in the ASCS elections. Peter Agee of Magnolia, Alabama, who had never been a state away from his lifetime home, swore to tell the whole truth in a D.C. court. He told how Frank Shields, the white County ASCS man ("He been knowing me all his days. We were raised up together"), had attempted to bribe him not to come and threatened him if he did. Shields had come to see him when he wasn't home.
Agee: "If he comes back" Agee told his sister, "tell him I ain't here."
. . . "I came back later that day and there he sat on [my] porch. I dodged him [I went around through a corn field]. I stood and looked at him, but he didn't see me."
Q: "Why were you dodging him?"
A: " ... when you see a white man sitting on your porch and you have signed something like what I have signed [candidacy for the ASCS] . . . I didn't know what he had in mind."
Then Agee told of a later conversation with ASCS Official Shields.
"Peter, I will give you 10 acres of the best farming land and I will show you how to get loans for cows ... if you just come out of it . . . out of this election.
' . . . I said, "I am going to hold on [even though] I may have to leave here . . .'
* * *
"[Shields replied]: 'You are not going to get rich off it [being on the ASCS], you only get $8 [for a meeting], three times a year and that is not very much. And I am getting mad at these lawyers coming down South and leading you wrong; you don't know what you are doing."'
[Government lawyer]: "Are you saying he told you this?"
A: "You asked me to tell you."
* * *
[Jelinek]: "Did you have a conversation . . . about your coming to this court . . .?"
A: " . . . they asked me not to go to Washington even if you stay on the ballot. And I came anyway. I don't know what will be the results when I get back."
[The Court]: "Who asked you not to come to Washington?"
A: "That was this committeeman, Mr. Frank Shields. ...'no harm is going to come to you [he said], but yet don't go to Washington.' [Still later] 'Understand now, there is no harm, there is no harm'--"
The judge heard all this and appeared to feel the testimony somewhat melodramatic. But not the sharecroppers in the audience who understood the threatening meaning of "no harm, no harm"; each wondered what they would face when they returned.
Agee told the judge that he was afraid of Shields, "a little afraid and shaking -- just like I am now" -- but he remained as a candidate and came to Washington to testify.
The first witness, much quoted in the nation's press, had accused a federally paid USDA official of bribery and intimidation; the secret report was in evidence and 28 more witnesses were ready to tell their stories, to try to explain in the stylized Question and Answer form of courtroom ritual, the real world of white power and black fear.
By the time the second witness took the stand, the Government capitulated. They offered to overrule the Alabama ASCS and extend the election for an additional month (a few days less than originally scheduled). The farmers' appeal was "deemed reasonable," though Secretary Freeman was reported to have told Senator Robert Kennedy, "They had no case at all. We only agreed to the postponement because of the Department's image."
But would my clients agree to one month in lieu of the sweeping reforms also demanded in the lawsuit? I had learned enough not to make decisions for my clients, though I recommended the settlement. A victory against the USDA, I believed, was more important than the details. As they caucused for what seemed an indeterminable amount of time in the federal hallway, some asked Stokely what to do. He would only comment, "It's up to you but I know you will be sure that there'll be no more Atlantic City's," referring to the National Democratic Convention of 1964, where big shots made promises to the black delegation and then reneged. The Judge chided me: "What's the matter? Don't your clients trust you?"
"No, they don't." I answered polemically, "They've been betrayed by too many white men who professed to have their best interests in mind."
The Judge, preferring to wait rather than hear two dozen more witnesses, fumed until a spokesman accepted the offer.
Such a minor victory. And so few results. With the extra time, all the enthusiasm and spirit of the victorious farmers and the Movement, with a special grant for voter instruction, with a USDA truck speeding to Alabama with box after box of blue pamphlets explaining the election -- but with Lowndes County landlords collecting the ballots to save the tenants the "trouble" of mailing them -- we lost, badly. Not one black elected to a county committee. Yet we felt a symbolic victory; we could overpower the USDA under controlled circumstances . . . and we had a bit more muscle back home in Alabama.
One farmer, unaware of the hearing, told a reporter there were some improvements in getting information and help from the ASCS. "Something done shook 'em up. I don't know what, but something sure shook 'em up."
To the Southerners, our victory was enormous. They knew a month wouldn't change the results of elections controlled by many pressures. The importance to them lie in a federal court -- with the acquiescence of the federal Agriculture Department -- interfering with the local ASCS, and, by inference, with the multi-billion dollar subsidy program. A high ASCS official in D.C., visibly anxious about the reaction in Alabama, remarked, "After all, we've got to work with those fellows down there." Other observers believed the effect of the case was to force USDA to play its hand a little more aggressively. A North Carolina Congressman was said to have met secretly with the Southern members of the Agriculture Committee and told them: "You're turning your back on your own people."
Repercussions should have been expected. Agee had been threatened, my own civil rights colleagues had warned me of dire consequences to all of us if I "won" such a case. So why were we all so surprised when a few days after the court's decisions, the counterattack began?
Agee had returned home and was working in the family store when some white men came in and told him, "Peter Agee will not be able to live in Magnolia after the lies he told in Washington." A few hours later, a group of white men drove by and fired shots in the air. When civil rights worker, Dick Reavis, called for the police, they instead arrested three blacks in the vicinity and Reavis himself, for objecting to their search of the victim's store without a warrant.
Agee knew his county even if the Judge hadn't believed him; he knew the meaning of "no harm, no harm." Agee realized he must leave his lifelong home; he fled to Memphis a few hours before some white men told his sister to look behind the store, there was a body and "it might be your brother."
I whipped off a letter to Judge Corcoran with a news clipping of what happened, and wrote about the "fate of a witness before your honor who dared tell the truth about bribery and intimidation."
There was more. Three-quarters of the members of the Washington delegation were evicted from the plantations they had lived on for as long as four generations, evicted from the soil of their birth, with no other work, no other place to go, and no other means even to earn money for food. They were cut loose.
I would be next.