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.
GDM: For two reasons: First, the story of harassment helps us to understand the contradictory nature of racial politics in the post-civil rights period. Just as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 allowed for the desegregation of American politics and the election of a black president in 2008, so too did it lead to the rise of a racially conservative Republican Party and the repression and later disproportionate investigation of black elected officials.
Second, we live in a political world shaped by the people and forces black elected officials identified as the architects of harassment — people like presidential aspirant and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, "America's Mayor" Rudy Giuliani and Jefferson Sessions (R-Ala.), ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
TR: How did this harassment and repression affect the impact that African-American officials were able to have politically? How might things be different now if it hadn't taken place?
GDM: It certainly convinced many blacks that white-controlled government institutions — specifically law enforcement — could not be trusted. You can't have faith in the FBI if the FBI is allegedly targeting your political leadership for repression. You can't turn to the Department of Justice if the Department of Justice is prosecuting black voters for exercising their right to the franchise.
It also encouraged racial mistrust and animosity. Many white Americans believed the FBI agents, U.S. attorney or local reporters who accused black elected officials of criminal activity. Most blacks, on the other hand, believed that it was the white authority figures that were acting illegally.
Last, it injured the careers of some promising African-American elected officials.
TR: Do we see any echoes of harassment of black elected leadership today?
GDM: Yes. At this very moment, the House Ethics Committee is investigating a number of black members. Now, let me be clear: Some, perhaps even all, of these members should be investigated. I am not equating harassment with innocence. Just because investigations are racially disproportionate does not mean that they will not uncover wrongdoing.
That said, many of the complaints that lead to these Ethics Committee investigations were made by conservative groups with long and questionable histories of filing politically motivated complaints against Democrats and black Democrats in particular.
An example is in order here: In the last three years, well over a dozen black members of Congress have been investigated by the Office of Congressional Ethics and the House Ethics Committee. Half of these investigations were filed by the National Legal and Policy Center, a self-described "conservative watchdog organization" founded by movement conservatives Peter Flaherty and Ken Boehm, both veteran leaders of Citizens for Reagan; the Landmark Legal Foundation, an antilabor, conservative legal group led by Reagan administration veteran and shock jock Mark Levin; and Judicial Watch, a conservative good-government group. In other words, conservative groups are using the House ethics process to attack their political opposition, and some are downright frivolous.
Jenée Desmond-Harris is a contributing editor at The Root.