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For the first time in Alabama history, a white jury voted yesterday to punish a white man for racial murder. After seven hours of deliberation the Anniston jurors sentenced Hubert Damon Strange to ten years in prison for killing Willie Brewster, a local Negro foundry worker.
Heartening though this decision is, its significance as a precedent is limited, for the circumstances of the Willie Brewster case were highly unusual. Brewster had never been involved in the civil rights movement; he was driving nome from his job at a local pipe factory at the time he was shot. The nightriders who killed Brewster had just heard a National States Rights Party speaker call for "bloodshed" if necessary to protect white men from Negroes and Communists. To add incentive to the search for the killers, Anniston's civic and business leaders offered a $21,000 reward.
In view of these circumstances, the Brewster case is hardly likely to revolutionize Southern justice. Southern law enforcement officials have repeatedly declined to protect the rights of Negroes and civil rights workers, and white juries have refused to punish those who violated these rights. Since 1963, at least 21 people have been murdered in the Deep South because they were Negroes or "nigger lovers." Within the past nine months in Alabama alone, four others besides Willie Brewster have been the victims of civil rights murders. No convictions were brought in any of these cases.
Because local police and courts have abdicated their responsibilities, President Johnson and Congress must act to prevent future racial murders and to increase the chances of punishing lawbreakers.
To prevent more killings:
* The President should set up within the Justice Department a special branch of federal law enforcement agents, empowered to make on-the-spot arrests for violations of federal law, who would be sent to areas of repeated or probable racial violence. The presence of such agents would deter potential lawbreakers, who currently have little to fear either from sympathetic local police or from FBI agents, who have been instructed to observe racial crimes but not to arrest the criminals. The President has ample power to take such action. Under Section 333 of Title 10 of the United States Code he can use the militia, armed forces, "or any other means" to execute the laws and protect the constitutional rights of citizens, when state officials are unwilling or unable to do so.
* Congress should widen the scope of the fair-employment section of the 1946 Civil Rights Act to include public employees. This would be aimed particularly at integrating employment in state courts and police forces. Congress could base such a law on its power to enforce the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
To punish law-beakers:
* Congress should move to integrate the all-white jury system of Southern states. First, it should establish uniform jury standards for both federal and state courts. (Again, the Fourteenth Amendment would empower Washington to legislate for state courts.) Since age and residence are now sufficient qualifications for voting, it would be illogical if jury-service qualifications were any more stringent.
Second, Congress should empower the federal government to seek an injunction against any official who discriminates in the summoning or selection of jurors. The one existing law against jury discrimination is an 1875 criminal statute which allows the offending official to be tried by a Southern jury and specifies that he be fined, rather than jailed, if found guilty. An injunction would be granted by a single federal judge without a jury, and violators could be subject to stricter penalties than they now face.
* Congress should pass a law providing that if a person commits a crime punishable by state courts -- such an intimidation, injury or murder -- while intending to prevent someone from exercising rights guaranteed by the Constitution or federal laws (which is a federal crime), he should be liable to prosecution in the federal courts for both crimes. At present, federal courts can convict the murderer of a civil rights worker only of depriving the worker of his constitutional rights, for which the maximum penalty is ten years in prison. Under the proposed statute, such a killer could be given a sentence comparable to that prescribed for murder by state law.
* Last -- but very important -- the President should appoint as federal judges only men who have demonstrated that they will administer the laws fairly and firmly. In the past, too many such judges have been chosen on the basis of politics, not performance. Giving the federal government the power to seek an injunction to halt jury discrimination will have little effect if the case is decided by a judge who believes in white supremacy.
If such proposals appear to threaten the federal system of government, they do not. For in the field of Southern justice, the federal system has long since broken down.
Congress has acted many times in other fields to preserve order when the states have shown that they were unable to do so. It has outlawed white slavery and regulated fireworks because state efforts at control were ineffective. Surely, the President and Congress can move with as much energy to safeguard the constitutional rights of American citizens as they have done in the past to protect them from pimps and pinwheels.
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