A week ago in Albany, Ga., a Federal grand jury returned indictments against nine leaders of the Albany Movement, a militant civil rights organization fighting a bitterly segregationist city. Three persons were indicted for "obstructing justice," the charge being based upon a boycott they organized against the Carl Smith Grocery. Smith was on the jury that heard a suit brought by Charlie Ware, a Negro, against Sheriff Warren Johnson, alleging Johnson had violated Ware's constitutional rights by shooting him while under arrest. (Ware, of course, lost the case.) The government claimed the boycott was in "retaliation" for Smith's vote. The six other leaders were cited for perjury before the grand jury in testimony about the boycott.
The action, initiated by the Justice Department, was the first move by the Federal government to obtain criminal indictments for disturbances resulting from the current racial demonstrations in Georgia. According to the Deputy Attorney General, "such conduct must become a matter of serious Federal legal concern."
It is possible that the defendants are guilty of the alleged offenses (though they claim plans to boycott Smith for discriminatory hiring practices were laid before the Ware trial began). But it is hard to determine any motive for the Justice Department's behavior except hostility to the integration movement or a desire to appease segregationist politicians. In Albany and other segregationist cities the law has become a relative concept, and it is often enforced with appalling disregard for common decency, let alone justice.
John Perdew, a Harvard senior working for SNNC, has discovered that it is common practice for Georgia police to deprive integration workers of liberty without the "due process of law" guaranteed by the Constitution, and to subject them to cruel and unusual punishment prohibited by the Constitution. Young girls are held incommunicado in rooms lacking either ventilation or sanitary facilities; demonstrators are drenched with high pressure fire hoses and then burned with electric cattle prods; SNCC workers are beaten to unconsciousness while being taken to jail to be arraigned on completely imaginary charges. In addition to this crude sort of lawlessness by police, three Southern governors have openly defied both the Constitution and the Federal Government, forcing the President to use Federal troops to restore order.
Against his disgraceful background of contempt for the moral and legal foundations of this democracy, the offenses of the Albany Movement leaders seem trivial technicalities. Yet it is they whom the Government has decided to pursue; the nearly countless instances of police brutality have not attracted the Attorney General's attention. They are not, apparently, "matters of serious Federal legal concern." Governors Wallace and Barnett remain firmly in office despite flagrant contempt of the Federal courts.
These indictments will and must raise doubts in the minds of the Negroes of Albany and the nation about the Attorney General's determination to secure equal justice for all citizens. This destructive action can only serve to thwart, rather than serve, the cause of justice in the South. It merits the sharpest criticism.