For conspiracy theorists seeking recent evidence of prosecutors targeting minority subgroups, there’s no shortage of troubled black political narratives. This past July, former Newark mayor James was sentenced to 27 months for fraud after being found guilty of using government credit cards for personal entertainment, and for conspiring with his mistress to buy and sell city property for outrageous profits. In Birmingham this past December, current mayor Langford was indicted on 101 counts, including bribery, money laundering, and filing false tax returns. Former Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick was incarcerated through early February for perjuring himself. And, perhaps most famous, an August 2006 raid of then–Louisiana congressman William Jefferson’s home and office uncovered about $90,000 in alleged bribe money in his freezer — a fraction of the payoffs that feds will attempt to link the New Orleans Democrat to in his upcoming May trial.
Not-so-recent history also serves the interest of black leaders claiming harassment. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was flagrantly spied on by investigators who considered him the “most dangerous and effective Negro leader in the country.” In 1971, Nixon placed the entire Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) on his enemies list, and, in the 1980s, the Reagan justice department investigated one-third of the CBC (while producing no convictions, mind you). The blatant targeting of leftie black pols, such as former Tennessee congressman Harold Ford Sr. — who endured a 10-year probe and trial for charges of conspiracy and bank fraud only to be found innocent — and former congressman Mervyn Dymally — who was harassed to no result as both a California and United States representative — left a lasting impression on the African-American community that its leaders were fair game for poachers with FBI badges.
The futile investigations of Dymally, Ford Sr., New York congressman Charlie Rangel, and more than 100 others were documented in two reports by Iowa State Professor Mary Sawyer (formerly Mary Warner) — The Dilemma of Black Politics: A Report on Harassment of Black Elected Officials (1977) and Harassment of Black Elected Officials: Ten Years Later (1986). Through detailed anecdotal accounts of fruitless and abrasive investigations of African-American politicians, she presented what many consider an irrefutable case that black leaders were in fact targeted. Though participants in the study could not rally enough congressional support to get Sawyer’s research heard by the United States House Subcommittee on Civil and Constitutional Rights in 1988, her landmark studies led to the creation of the independent church-funded Center for the Study of Harassment Against Black Elected Officials in Washington two years later (it closed in 1994 due to lack of funding).
“Because of Mary Sawyer, there is a body of research that shows that this stuff definitely occurred in the past,” says University of the District of Columbia history professor G. Derek Musgrove, PhD, who has a manuscript in progress titled The Harassment of Black Elected Officials: State Repression of Black Leadership in the Post–Civil Rights United States, 1965–1995. “The harassment ideology that Sawyer created in 1977 will always be credible to many in the black community, since there’s standing evidence that authorities have been hostile to their better interests.”
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