For black elected officials serving over the past five decades, race-related challenges haven’t ended with getting voted into office. In Rumor, Repression and Racial Politics: How the Harassment of Black Elected Officials Shaped Post-Civil Rights America, author George Derek Musgrove chronicles these politicians’ allegations of disproportionate harassment and repression by the state and the news media. It’s not about whether there was a conspiracy against them, but rather about the impact of the well-documented surveillance, adversary journalism and government investigations on black political life in the post-civil rights era.
The Root talked to Musgrove, who interviewed 25 sitting and former black members of Congress, about what his unsettling findings can teach us about race and politics, and what repression of black elected officials looks like today.
The Root: Your book examines black elected officials’ allegations of repression by the state and the news media. What did this look like?
George Derek Musgrove: What black elected officials came to call “harassment” looked different at different times. In the years between 1965 and 1974, it looked like police and intelligence-community surveillance and counterintelligence, politically motivated audits by intelligence units within the IRS and “dirty tricks” by the Nixon White House. Approximately three-fourths of the African Americans who sat in Congress during these years experienced at least one of these types of state repression.
In the late 1970s, “harassment” looked like adversary journalism by white reporters desperate to be the next Woodward and Bernstein. These media investigations are hard to count, but they had a huge impact on black elected officials.
And in the 1980s and early 1990s, what black elected officials called “harassment” was the racially disproportionate investigation of official corruption by the Reagan and Bush Justice Departments. One third of the blacks that served in Congress during this period faced a federal criminal investigation, though only two were indicted and none convicted.
TR: What was your most shocking or disturbing finding?
GDM: That was probably the case of William L. Clay, congressman from St. Louis. Between 1974 and 1977, he was investigated by five different federal agencies and two newspapers for everything from allegedly misusing his clerk-hire funds to tax evasion to drug dealing. Not a single one of the investigations led to a conviction; indeed, the majority did not even lead to indictments.
Not only that, but most of the accusations that sparked these investigations came from newspapers and individuals who were later revealed to be FBI or Justice Department informants.