It was 1966 and this was my first civil rights hearing, actually my first hearing, civil rights or not.
I was 26 and about one year out of law school. I had lucked out in getting a job with OEO, the Office of Equal Opportunity, which ran Project Head Start, but that’s a whole other story. I was immediately shipped to the south to become an official Federal civil rights worker. My job was to desegregate Project Head Start. That too is a whole other story, but let’s take it from here.
On a field trip to Mississippi, I had discovered that a school district had refused to admit black children into the all white Project Head Start Program. Federal law prohibited such discriminatory action by the states. When I told my bosses in Washington, they decided to try to strip the county and if possible, the whole state of Mississippi of all Federal funds required by the state to operate Project Head Start. Mississippi, of course did not want to lose millions of dollars from the Federal government.
Before they could take the Federal funds earmarked for Mississippi, the government was required to hold a hearing, at which a judge would determine whether the school district had in fact violated Federal law.
This story is about that hearing.
Now of course there was a Judge to adjudicate the case. Apart from keeping good order and discipline, as they say in the military, he had to decide whether the school district had violated Federal law and if so, should it be denied Federal funding for Project Head Start. My boss and I had the job of getting this Judge to rule against the school district and strip it of Federal funds.
Bob Saunders, my boss, a black lawyer, was to run the hearing, although as it turned out he ended up with not a whole lot to run.
We all sat around a big table in the schoolhouse, with the Judge at one end and in front of him a handwritten sign, “JUDGE.” Like, with only about six of us and him in a robe, you could not have figured that out? Before we sat down, my boss and I did our mandatory civil rights thing. He being black and me being white, he drank from the “whites only,” water fountain and I took a drink from the “colored only” water fountain and then he peed in the “whites only” toilet and I peed in the “colored only” toilet and we were at peace with the world.
[Sidenote: please don’t chastise me for using the words Negro or colored. In 1966 the term African-American had not yet been invented. Signs over separate facilities read “colored only” and “whites only.” The term “Negro” was way up the language ladder from the southern designation of Nigra, which was the “polite” term for Nigger.]
Like lightening, the Negro janitor came around and put a padlock on both bathroom doors and my boss and I looked at each other, knowing exactly what had happened. I confirmed it by trying the water fountains. Both of them had been turned off.
I said, “boss, I think that not only are they not going to serve us at this lunch counter, but they have closed down the whole restaurant.” And we smiled at each other. I asked him “Are you going to tell the Judge?” And the boss said, “Nope, he’ll find out on his own.” And we smiled at each other.
My boss, Robert Saunders, was a man who went to have an iconic civil rights career, and eventually a library named after him. You can read more about him on the sidebar on the right.
Not 20 minutes into the proceeding, after hashing out a few rules of the game, the Judge called a break for an hour so that he could review documents. In a fit of southern decorum, the school board’s white lawyer informed my Negro boss where a “nice” restaurant was while he and two school personnel went to their “nice” restaurant. Of course, my boss was directed to the “colored only” restaurant while the school authorities went to the “whites only” one.
Ordinarily, although adversaries, two lawyers trying a case against each other, would go for breakfast together. Unfortunately, that was not possible since my boss would not be allowed into the white restaurant. My boss headed off to his restaurant and the school board lawyer with his several people to his.
I remained behind, since I would not be allowed into the restaurant my boss was going to and the school board lawyer could not very well invite me to his “nice” restaurant, without inviting my boss. Since he couldn’t invite my boss he couldn’t invite me. Segregation could be a very confusing thing.
I stayed behind on the ploy that I would review the trial documents. Anyway, this was my first hearing and I was so nervous, that I probably would have thrown up if I had eaten.
So it was the Judge and me left behind, both sitting at the table and reading stuff. Three minutes into his reading, the Judge had a new mission, to go to the toilet, which he announced to me, as in “son, I’m going to the toilet.” Whoops, I think I see a problem here.
The Judge came back almost immediately and said, “the toilet is locked and so is the other one.” I assume by the “other one” he meant the “colored only” one. I said, “Judge, I think that the water has been turned off also.” “Turned off,” he said to me? “Now look son, I have to take a shit and you are telling me that both toilets, colored and white are locked, well, find the keys.” I replied, “I think that may be a problem, Sir, but I’m just guessing.” “Why a problem?” And before I could answer, he asked, “Why is the water off in the fountains?” I said, they want to punish us Judge.” “Punish, Punish, why?” And then he went on before I could answer him and said “Well they’re not gonna punish me. Right now, I don’t give a shit about the water fountains but I do about the toilets.” But then he came back to the fountains. “And why in the world, son, would they turn off the water?“
I said, "Your honor, may I be frank and honest?” And I was being anything but frank and honest and everything to poison his mind against the enemy and therefore everything a lawyer shouldn’t do unless he wants to win. His reply sticks with me to this day. He said, “I don’t give a shit if you want to be Dick and Jane, what the fuck is going on here?” I said “your honor, my boss, the chief counsel for the government drank from the “whites only” water fountain and I drank from the “colored” one and then he used the “white” toilet and I used the “colored” one and he is Negro and I am white.” “Mr. Lawyer, don’t you think that I can figure our what color your are?” “Well, Judge, I was just making my point sir.”
And I went on, “Judge, I hate to say this, but in my opinion, they locked the toilets and turned off all of the water so that my Negro boss could not use the “whites only” water fountain and I could not use the “colored only” one. And Judge, this is even more terrible for me to say, but maybe they were even concerned which one you would use, you coming down from the north and all.”
The Judge replied “But, I was using the white facilities because I’m white and all the signs said, “Whites only.” So I said, “well sir, if I may, these people are very suspicious and who knows, maybe they thought that you would do the sort of things we civil rights people always do, I mean you coming from the north and all” And I was on a roll and continued, “Truthfully, Judge I don’t think they give a damm about what might happen to you if they locked the toilet doors. Please excuse my language your honor.”
And this Judge boomed out, “This can’t be. No one would dare to stop a Judge from using any toilet he wants to use or drinking water from any fountain that he wants to drink from and I have to fucking use that toilet and I don’t care which one it is.”
And in my mind, I said, “my God, this white bozo really thinks that because he is a Judge, he can fuck with this race shit. This asshole has no idea where he is and what’s going on down here.”
So, as they might characterize it in a novel, I “sheepishly” said with great conviction, “Judge, I don’t want to prejudice you against them, but that was probably just what they thought you might think, that even you, the Judge coming from the north and all, would purposely use the wrong toilet or water fountain just like us civil rights workers.” “Boy, I’m no civil rights’ worker, I’m a Judge.” “Of course, Sir!”
And now I played the solicitous boy-lawyer role and said “your honor, there is a gas station about 3 blocks from here and I could drive you there.” He shouted back at me “I’ll shit in my pants before anyone locks a toilet to stop me from using it.” And he was starting to think the way I thought that he should think, that this was obviously a conspiracy against him. My law professors would have been so proud of me.
I said, “Sir, there is really no choice unless they break the locks on those doors.” “Counsel, don’t fucking break the locks on the doors, break down the fucking doors.” This seemed a bit of overkill, but when you have to go to the bathroom real bad, you tend to think that way.
So, quite incredibly, there was a fire axe in a sealed glass case that said “Break Glass In Case Of Fire.” While I thought to myself, what a stupid sign, since breaking the glass would not stop a fire, fortunately, given years of law school, I understood its implications.
While I couldn’t throw a ball for shit, I got me a rock and in this dump, rocks were all over the place and I whammed it at the glass and it smashed to smithereens and I carefully put my hand into the hole around the shattered glass and the axe came free quite easily. I wish the kids at summer camp could see me now.
And I was going to start hacking at the lock but this rather smallish Judge, extra motivated by mother nature’s intensifying call, grabbed it from me, stood about 10 feet back and took a running leap at the door with the blade extended. But all that happened was that the blade got stuck in the wood and he was jarred to the ground. In frenzy, we both unsuccessfully tried to pull it free and he looked at me and I looked at him and he said, “They did this to stop me from shitting, didn’t they?” I said, “Your honor, I am not ready to jump to that conclusion.” And he said, “Well I am!”
And he bellowed at me, as if I had done something wrong, “Get the guy who runs this place and get him now and get that fucking door open.” “YES SIR!” Who was I to argue with the Judge? Plus, I would say that the hearing was going quite well, despite that there had not yet been a whit of testimony.
So I ran around for someone in charge, but they must all have been down at the gas station going to the toilet. But there was the Negro janitor. And I said, “The Judge has ordered that you break down the bathroom door” and he said, “I’m not allowed to do that,” which I’m certain was true if he wanted to keep his job. “Then you better open those locks.” “But, I don’t have the key. The principal took it.” And I said, “Then you tell that to the Judge, not me.” And this guy got a little concerned.
And I walked him up to the Judge and the Judge said, “Are you the motherfucker who locked this door shut?” And the janitor said meekly, “Yes sir, they told me to do it and I don’t have the key, sir.” “Well son,” (The janitor was Negro, and a person from the north would not call him boy, but even though the janitor was a middle aged man, calling him “son,” was OK, given that the Judge had called me “son” albeit, I was half the age of the janitor.) And the Judge continued, “then you break down this door or break off that lock in 60 seconds or I’m gonna order you to spend the rest of your fucking life in jail and I’m the Judge so you better know that I’m not kidding around.”
He immediately wrestled the axe out of the door where it had been lodged and took one gargantuan swing at the hasp holding the lock, shredded the wood all around it and then backed up and took one other mighty swing and the hasp and lock fell to the ground. The Judge rushed in, closed the door as best he could and did his business. Interestingly it was in the “colored only” toilet.
He came out and said to the janitor, “now turn on all of the water and get every fucking toilet door open, (The Judge must have thought that he was at the Waldorf or something. This place only had the two toilets) and chop down every sign in this place, over toilets, over fountains, I don’t give a shit where they are, I want every sign that says, “White’s only” or “colored only.” Chop down every one of them, but don’t you go chopping up those signs. I want to be able to read what each one says. They are now evidence in this case. Go son, do it now and get them to me at that hearing table in 10 minutes.”
Do I really have to elaborate on how this story ends? Everyone returned from breakfast to the hearing, not realizing that the government’s boy-lawyer had already won it. I briefed my boss on what had happened and he said “Harv you shouldn’t have,” And once again that day, he smiled and I smiled back at him.
There was the most perfunctory hearing, interspersed by questions from the Judge to the school board’s lawyer, about locks, keys, toilets, water, signs, etc. Not a whole lot about children, segregation, Federal funds and the like. Preordained by his own encounter with segregation, the Judge held that he could draw no other conclusion, pointing to the hacked up signs, but that if grown people were locked out of facilities for their color, that little Negro Head Start children didn’t have a chance not to be subjected to the same disparate treatment in violation of Federal law.
In a burst of injudicious temperament, the Judge orally issued his ruling: “I am going to do everything that I can, fucking states’ rights or no states’ rights, to get every one off you cocksuckers who tried to stop me from taking a shit, fired and trust me, you won’t get another dime from us,” (“us,” being the entire Federal government).
My boss and I flew back to Washington together and Harv became the office hero, literally feted to one of those alcohol-drenched lawyers’ lunches and later I got references which a young Washington-career-hungry lawyer could only dream of.
It is so interesting, that a locked toilet could so propel a career.