C. Vernon Mason

The Law and Equality

VTR Date: July 29, 1988

Guest: Mason, C. Vernon


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: C. Vernon Mason
Title: “The Law and Equality”
VTR: 7-29-88

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Now, I don’t want today to talk about the Tawana Brawley case itself. I don’t have enough information about it to do so intelligently. And I don’t particularly want to talk today about the Reverend Al Sharpton or Attorney Alton Maddox. I don’t know enough about them to do so meaningfully. But my guest today is the other of those three black leaders who have loomed so large in the press lately on what they proclaim are race-related matters. And I think it might be best to begin this program with him precisely as I began the one we recorded in January 1988 to celebrate Martin Luther King’s Birthday.

Heffner: I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. Some years ago, when I wanted some way, somehow, to do something of my own to memorialize the contributions Martin Luther King had made to the ultimate realization of freedom and justice in our nation, I revised the basic American history test and documents I had structured much earlier to include Dr. King’s memorable “Unwise and Untimely” letter written from jail in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963. When I did, joining it with John F. Kennedy’s historic civil rights speech of that same year (shortly before the young President was assassinated, as Dr. King would be, too), I was reminded forcefully of what the black leader had said to me long before, right here on THE OPEN MIND. For what I included in my DOCUMENTARY HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES was Dr. King’s eloquent insistence that “History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily…freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor: it must be demanded by the oppressed. For years now, “Dr. King continued, “I have heard the word ‘wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This ‘wait’ has almost always meant: ‘never’.”
Well, that was in 1963, from the Birmingham City Jail. Earlier, here on THE OPEN MIND, when he and civil rights pioneer Judge J. Waites Waring joined a painfully young Richard Heffner on February 10th, 1957 for what we called a discussion of “The New Negro”. Martin Luther King had said much the same to me. It bears repeating:

Heffner: Doesn’t this raise the question of tactics, though? You say, you use the word ‘honesty’, you feel that honesty is important here, too. But as a matter of securing for the Negro his rights, do you feel that this aggressiveness, this self-assertiveness will get him more in the long run than going along with contemporary opinion and biding his time, taking step by step as he goes?

Martin Luther King: I think, I think it’s better to be aggressive at this point. It seems to me that it is both historically and sociologically true that privileged classes do not give up their privileges voluntarily. And they do not give them up without strong resistance. And all of the gains that have been made, that we have received in the area of civil rights have come about because the Negro stood up courageously for these rights and he was willing to aggressively press on. So I would think that it would be much better in the long run to stand up and be aggressive, with understanding good will and with a sense of discipline. Yet these things should not be substitutes fro pressing on. And with the aggressive attitude I believe that we will bring the gains or rather civil rights into being much sooner than we would just standing idly by, waiting for these things to be given voluntarily.

Heffner: What about the ill-will that’s generated by the aggressiveness? Certainly your own experience in Montgomery…you’ve been the target of bomb attacks, you’ve been the target of verbal and other kinds of violence. What about the ill-will that is generated by aggressiveness?

Martin Luther King: Well, I think that is a necessary phase of the transition. Whenever oppressed people stand up for their rights and rise up against the oppressor, so to speak, the initial response of the oppressor is bitterness. That’s true in most cases, I think. I think that is what we are now experiencing in the South, is this initial response of bitterness which I hope will be transformed into amore brotherly attitude. We hope that the end will be redemption and reconciliation rather than division. But this, it seems to me, is a necessary phase of transition from the old order of segregation and discrimination to the new order of freedom and justice. And this should not last forever, it’s just something that’s natural right now and as soon as we pass out of the shock period into the more creative period of adjustment, I think that bitterness and ill-will will pass away.

Heffner: Martin Luther King’s hope then was that bitterness and ill-will will pass away. Now three decades later, perhaps how to achieve the fallen leader’s objectives will inform today’s OPEN MIND discussion with black activist and civil rights attorney C. Vernon Mason. And I much appreciate your joining me here again, Mr. Mason…though in the half year since our first program you seem to have become ever more a symbol of racial division rather than of the reconciliation Dr. King hoped for…and while he used Americans’ sense of the majesty of the law to achieve his goals, you are perceived by some as attempting instead to thwart America’s legal system. Is that a fair perception?

Mason: I think that it’s important for us, Mr. Heffner, to remember when Dr. King made those statements which were in 1963 toward the end of what was a magnificent contribution to the world. And right before he was assassinated there was an increasing awareness of the institutionalization of what he was up against. So when he came to the North, I never will forget the protest against his appearance in Cairo, Illinois, in which he said he had never seen such hatred and he had never seen such hatred even in the South. When he challenged the national administration on the Vietnam War, numbers of persons who had walked with him before abandoned him during that period. The speech that he made at Riverside Church in New York City, when he talked about how young black and white men could fight in Vietnam but they could not live together in this country…So there was an increasing realization of (from 1963, 1964 through 1968) of the fact that the struggle that Dr. King was waging, himself, he knew that it had to, in fact, challenge the basic structure of the society. And so numbers of people…Reverend Sharpton who I think best, in terms of civil disobedience of the tactics that he has employed in connection with our struggle here in New York, I think best exemplifies Dr. King’s tradition in challenging the basic structure. The same thing with Alton Maddox who is, in my estimation, a legal giant and genius, whose father is a Minister, and all of us came up during the time and remember very well Dr. King. As a matter of fact, when we were at the Democratic convention, one the things that we did with Tawana Brawley and her mother and all of our supporters was to go to his grave site and had a very, very emotional, moving prayer and tribute that we paid to him. And it is in that tradition that we are attempting to continue to try to change some basic things in the North. A lot of folks when they looked at the South many years ago, especially your so called liberal, it was very easy to look in Mississippi, and Arkansas, and Alabama, and Georgia, and Louisiana and to address those problems from a distance because we had the Bull Conners and the Orville Faubuses and the Eastlands and all the people down there, then. But, it is much more difficult, say, to address the issue of racial justice in Massachusetts at Amherst, at Harvard University, at Columbia University, throughout the North. So I do not see anything that we’re doing as divisive. I see what we’re doing is basically going up against what is a system that, probably since the time of Adam Clayton Powell, especially in New York, has not been accustomed to addressing the needs and concerns of those who are locked out, those who do not enjoy that privileged status.

Heffner: You say going up against the system…

Mason: Yes.

Heffner: And you talk about an attack upon the institutionalized structure.

Mason: Yes.

Heffner: How far are you going to carry that?

Mason: Well, I think that if we look at an area in which I’ve been working for the last several years, Alton and myself and also Reverend Sharpton beginning very early in his career. As a matter of fact you look at the criminal justice system, and not just in New York but around the country, we had the opportunity to talk to people over the last few years around the country. There have been incidents in Los Angeles, Boston…there was recently an acquittal of police officers who killed a young man from Louisiana. He was in Texas and they tried them for violation of civil rights. They were all acquitted, but those kinds of cases we find occurring more and more. In the state of New York in which I think we had more cases in recent years than anywhere else in the country with Bernhard Goetz, with Howard Beach, with Eleanor Bumpers, the 69 year old grandmother who ws shotgunned to death, Yvonne Small, a young mother of four who was beaten to death by police officers right before Christmas. Those cases routinely occur in the state of New York and we have found out a number of those cases are occurring around the North and around the country.

Heffner: OK, but the question is how will you challenge the legal institutions? Will you suborn juries [per jury] or would you…

Mason: Look, I don’t think there has been anything that we have done that is either unethical, or immoral, or illegal.

Heffner: But what will you do? How far will you go?

Mason: Well, let me say this, how much have we taken? I think that’s the fairer question to begin with. In the state of New York, I’ve been practicing law since 1972. My first case as a private civil rights lawyer (1973) was of a middle-aged black man who was the father of a radio commentator who had been beaten up by police officers going thoroughly the Holland tunnel into the state of New Jersey from New York. He never recovered from that, Richard. This was a situation in which he was pulled out of the car, beaten, then he was charged with assault. He was in and out of mental hospitals after that. I saw those cases for ten years. Cases where the system condoned that kind of police brutality. Cases where race-hate crimes, there was not even a category fro them, then…if a young black man or a black person was in what they call in the state or city of New York, a white neighborhood, that person would be risking life and limb. That has been known in the city for years.

Heffner: But, you see your response to my question…and it’s really a meant question. I really wonder how you would respond to this: How far will you go? You say the question is “How much have we taken?” And I would grant, as one individual would grant, everything that you say about what has been taken. The question that I have and that I think many of the people who know that you’re going to appear on THE OPEN MIND have, is: How far will you go? Will perjury, will contempt, will many of the ways in which people think that you have waged your war against the system, will these be your techniques?

Mason: Well, I think the reason I was trying to go into some of the history…I have never committed perjury…

Heffner: OK.

Mason: And I have never been held in contempt…

Heffner: Would you advise others to be?

Mason: Let me just answer it this way. I think the question is basically unfair because the system, and especially what we’ve been dealing with here in New York, seems to have no limitation in which it has gone to make certain that we don’t get justice. Numbers of people sight the Howard Beach case as an example of how the system worked. The Howard Beach case was an example of how the system does not work. We had to, literally put tens of thousands of people on the street to get any kind of prosecution in that case, at all, and that was through a special prosecutor. It was not the system of criminal justice that responded to the death of Michael Griffith and to the assault on Cedric Sandiford and Timothy Grimes. The dramatization of that case was Reverend Sharpton went out and demonstrated in that very pizza parlor where the whole situation started. I will answer your question very directly. We have not done anything illegal. We have not done anything unethical, or immoral. But, I think we have to look at some of the patterns that you showed earlier when they were talking about Dr. King. Numbers of people have had amnesia about Dr. King. Numbers of people now remember when he was in Washington and when he made the “I Have a Dream” speech. But, there were those hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people throughout the country that felt as J. Edgar Hoover did, when he said that King was the most dangerous man in America. And those were the sentiments that were prevailing up until, and I remember this history very well, there was a man called Malcolm X in New York. And then, there were people who moved away from that sentiment and suggested “Well, maybe since Malcolm X is in New York, and he’s talking a different kind of militancy, then we should embrace Dr. King”. And so, some of the criticisms and some of the questions…I’m not trying not to respond to your question. But I think that you must look at what has happened in the state of New York where we have worked in the last several years under both a man who wanted to be president, Mario Cuomo, and a mayor who no one in the establishment seemed to want to criticize, Edward I. Koch, who has been as racist as anything we saw down South 30 years ago.

Heffner: Look, I won’t get into a contest with you about that. I don’t particularly agree with you on those points, but that’s not really the point. I’m interested in drawing from you, if I can, the limits of the actions and the points-of-view that you will adopt, and that you will activate here in this, I think, quite understandable sense, that the black man has not achieved justice in this country.

Mason: Well, I think that it’s a question of tactics; I sense that that’s what you’re asking. The…

Heffner: Philosophy, not just tactics.

Mason: The philosophy is basically one in which I think we…again, if we look at the present presidential race…

Heffner: Yes.

Mason: And if we look at the Democratic race in particular. Michael Dukakis, who is a Greek immigrant, whose father I think came to this country maybe one generation ago, is now the Democratic nominee for President of the United States of America. Jesse Jackson, whose foreparents have been here for over four centuries, could not become the nominee. And I am of the opinion, and I think numbers of people share this, because of his color and because of race. So, I think the question, see, which is asked to those, again, in a non-privileged status in America, is not the proper question at all. I think the question ought to be, Professor Heffner, why isn’t it a reality in my lifetime? After looking at the fact that Dr. King and many others have given their lives to resolve this question. That I cannot, in good conscience, tell my son or daughters that they can be the President of the United States of America. And I have to be very honest with them about that, and tell them why. And no one wants to address that. You see, it seems to be, what is it that you’re willing to do as either a lawyer or a so-called leader to achieve justice? Not, why isn’t it a reality now? That that system, that dream that Dr. King had and died for, has not become a reality? It is not because of Vernon Mason. It is not because of Alton Maddox or Reverent Al Sharpton. It is because there is an institutionalization in the system which resists these kinds of efforts.

Heffner: You see, I think you’re making the assumption that I would challenge that point, as one person. I wouldn’t challenge what you’ve said there for one tiny, little moment. I trained as a historian and I know perfectly well that most of what you are saying is absolutely, dead true – to our shame. The question that I think comes up in the minds of many people…that’s our history, that’s part of the past and we can’t wipe that out. But, now…

Mason: It’s part of the present also, but go ahead, sure.

Heffner: OK, and you’re saying it’s so much a part of the present, that you have to take giant steps. And I’m really asking what those giant steps will consist of in terms of the legal structure?

Mason: Sure, OK, let me just give you a few illustrations. During the discussion and the protests around the Howard Beach case, there were persons who did not want to go through the legal system at all. There were persons who were calling us saying, “Don’t request a special prosecutor. Don’t go through the legal system in trying to achieve a prosecution in this case”. One call I remember in particular, when Alton and Reverend Sharpton and I were at a Union hall panning strategy in a meeting, we were talking to people from around the country, a call that said, “I’m tired of this and numbers of us out here are ready. As a matter of fact, we have people, now, with guns. We will go out to Howard Beach tonight to take care of this”. We counciled them, “Don’t do that, let us go through this route to try to achieve that”. When the business about this man who was supposedly hired to bug our homes came to light, and he said that he had bugged our houses, the question that my wife, and Reverend Sharpton’s wife, and the families had generally was: what is the government going to do about this? The answer we got back very clearly. The U.S. Attorney Rudolph Giuliani went on the air and said the public wants this issue resolved – the Tawana Brawley case. Because of that, he suggested he was willing to give immunity to the person who had violated one of the basic concepts in this country. That is, a person’s home is their castle. This man had said he had illegally bugged our homes and here you have the U.S. government saying, “We are willing, because we really don’t like these guys – we don’t like Sharpton, we don’t like Maddox, we don’t like Mason – we are willing to subvert the law and to give you immunity for breaking into their homes”. No one’s asking Giuliani, “Why are you willing to do that?” I haven’t heard a single Bar Association say that that was wrong, or unethical, or illegal.

Heffner: But, it’s interesting to me that when you talk about Howard Beach, and you talk about the advice you got from people who were even angrier, that you say you didn’t take that advice. And you stayed within the legal system and therefore it is within the legal system that the Howard Beach trial took place with results that I suspect you’re not totally opposed to.

Mason: Well, let me say this: I do not think that we, the establishment especially, should give itself any accolades for Howard Beach. As I said, it was an aroused black community, almost exclusively. We had very little help from the white community – minimal to none. But it was an aroused black community that produced a special prosecutor in the Howard Beach case. Let me give you another illustration. In that example that I gave, when the U.S. government, almost similar to what they did with Marcus Garvey, when J. Edgar Hoover…that was one of his first assignments to get Marcus Garvey deported, similar to the kind of counter-intelligence program that existed in the 60s that also involved Dr. King and many other black civil rights leaders. In this particular situation when we were dealing with the Brawley case, after the alleged break-in was broken, and the news media carried it, which all turned out to be a hoax. But, when the U.S. government saying, “We are not only willing not to protect you, we are going to give this guy immunity and basically say it’s OK. If anybody wants to break into your homes, it’s fine”. I think it shocked a lot of people, Richard, when we said we were going to go and apply for gun permits. I think a lot of people probably thought we already had guns. But, in the…but I think that point needs to be emphasized, that I went to Morehouse College. And I was steeped in the tradition of Dr. King. We studied all of the people…Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, Paul Robeson, all of those persons. Al Sharpton has received a Martin Luther King award. Alton’s father is a minister. But the point of it is, there are people who are irritated that lawyers, especially, would stand up and challenge a system which many people, including yourself, would admit there are serious problems with. But, I think that is our ethical duty, to do that.

Heffner: Isn’t it a question of what you mean by challenge? And that’s why I raise that question in the first place. I didn’t word it as well as you have. What will you do to challenge that system?

Mason: Well, let me, again…in the Howard Beach case, we refused to participate in a cover up. In the Tawana Brawley case where you have an Attorney General who has never tried a case, has not been in a courtroom in twenty-two years and there is an on-going cover-up which has been orchestrated by law enforcement authorities beginning with the first District Attorney and the second appointed District Attorney who quit the case within 24 hours…

Heffner: But, look, if…

Mason: I’m trying to answer your question.

Heffner: Yeah, but you see you’re answering it in the same way, if I may…I watched Ted Koppel, who is great. I watched the program you did with, I guess it was the Reverend Sharpton and Hines. I’m aware of the conflict that there is. There is no one here to take another position. So that if you don’t mind, I’d rather plumb the depths of your feelings without getting into those specifics because there isn’t anyone here to respond. And you know, as I know, that very point that you make has been responded to, whether accurately or sufficiently in your estimation or not is not the point. That’s why I know I’m not knowledgeable enough to debate this with you and there’s no one else here. But, I am able, at least, to ask you what your most fundamental thinking is. And you’ve talked about Maddox. And I was very much interested that you had said at one point you were quoted as saying, “His most sincere credential is his love of black people”. And I thought that was wonderful but it…you know that I’m getting the signal that we have thirty seconds left. So if I ask you a long question, you can’t answer it. I can say that maybe there is time to do another program and if not, maybe you’ll come back. Let’s talk about these attitudes because the same thing was said about white people in my day when Bilbo, and the Talmadges, and the others…the great thing about them was their love of White people.

Mason: There is a fundamental difference, Richard. They did not come here and were never slaves for almost three centuries.

Heffner: Fair enough.

Mason: I think the issue of race is something that has been difficult for this country to even try to address for all that period of time.

Heffner: Then let’s do it, let’s continue it another time because I’m getting the signal.

Mason: We have to do it.

Heffner: Thank you very much for joining me today C. Vernon Mason. And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next week. And if you care to share your thoughts, and I think you probably do, about today’s program, today’s guest, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck”.

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P. Walter Foundation; The M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; The Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; The Richard Lounsbery Foundation; Mr. Lawrence A. Wein; and The New York Times Company Foundation.