The Zinn Report
According to a report issued last week by the Southern Regional Council, Negro citizens are calling into question the Federal Government's legal and moral role in the fight for equal rights. The report reinforces Rev. Martin Luther King's charge that FBI agents in Albany, Georgia and other Southern cities are blatantly working with segregationists.
In the past six months of violence, the FBI has made only one arrest, and that followed the bombing of a church in which an FBI man had been injured. One can dismiss as irrelevant the accusation leveled recently by two dissident agents that the Bureau is led and staffed by racially biased men. More significant is the fact that in the South the Bureau must work hand in hand with local police on a myriad of law-enforcement matters, ranging from postal fraud to moonshine liquor. The individual agents have found it impractical, maybe impossible, to disrupt the network of friends and colleagues with whom they work on matters other than civil rights.
The Council Report suggests a special corps of civil rights agents, free of the entanglements which restrict FBI men in this field, and empowered to "prevent, as well as to investigate, violations of constitutional rights." Such a group, the Report fails to observe, would be more closely linked to Attorney General Kennedy's Justice Department than the FBI, which under J. Edgar Hoover's control has remained semi-autonomous. Thus, the Administration would assume a far less ambiguous legal approach toward the civil rights movement.
The Council Report urges that local law-enforcement officers be prosecuted by the Justice Department under Section 242 of the U.S. criminal code, which makes it illegal for them to subject "any inhabitant of any state to the deprivation of any rights, privileges or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution and laws of the United States." Attorney General Kennedy could have actively protected the well-being of the leaders of the Albany movement. He hesitated, preferring to congratulate Albany's police chief (who arrested over 1,000 Negroes) for maintaining the peace. His Justice Department rarely used its power of injunction to defend the rights of assembly and petition (though participation in marches and prayer-demonstrations provided the "legal" reason for jailing at least 700 citizens in Albany).
As for the President, it is his job to explain why "maintenance of law and order" cannot provide a semantic justification for jailing those who try to change the social order of the South. He need not, as he did in his speech on Mississippi, describe integration "so we can turn to the crises that are without, and stand united..." Unity in this era of cold-war crises is the cheapest reason for condemning segregation. It would not be impolitic for Mr. Kennedy to talk to this nation in moral terms: segregation is not merely a political liability but a moral horror.
Professor Howard Zinn, of Spelman College in Georgia, compiled the Report for the moderate, hi-racial Southern Regional Council. He has drafted a far-sighted, specific and humane set of suggestions. The President and the Attorney General would do well to take them seriously.