Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. ) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.
Opened March, 1980
Oral History Interview with
June 5, 1973
by Richard D. McKinzie
MCKINZIE: Ms. Bontecou, could you talk a little bit about your work in the Justice Department?
BONTECOU: The Civil Rights Section was a unit in the Criminal Division. Its sole jurisdiction was in the criminal field. We couldn't do anything about the wide area of situations that were not in the criminal field, except for a little public relations work.
The directive to establish a unit came from Attorney General Frank Murphy. We first called it the civil liberties unit; it was later
changed to civil rights. You have a copy of the directive. It was very far-reaching. It placed very wide duties upon the unit to study and clarify the law; to cooperate with the local U.S. Attorneys; and, to bring cases where possible. It was our duty to "publicize" the unit so that complaints would come to us, and people would know that there was such a unit. There had not been such a thing since the Reconstruction statutes.
The first thing we had to do was to satisfy ourselves as to the law. The entire United States Code at a certain point had been revised. It was the belief of the legal world at the time that we were operating that anything that was left out of the original statutes was no longer law although it had not been specifically repealed. The new revised statutes, by implication, repealed anything that was not in them so the major part of the definition of the
rights of individuals which had come in the Reconstruction statutes was no longer on the books, as we believed. We could bring cases in two small areas.
One of these areas was the well-recognized peonage law, which forbade involuntary labor. Interestingly enough, this had first been used in connection with the lumbermen of Maine. We had several good peonage cases involving Negroes who were held by fear and brutality to work on remote plantations. We were successful in those cases because of public opinion. Generally, to begin with, the person who violated this law was terribly unpopular in the community.
MCKINZIE: How did a case like that ever get to you?
BONTECOU: Well, in different ways. Some Negro would manage to get away and tell his story to someone who would pass it on, or the outraged local citizens would report it. Sometimes the local United States Attorney might hear of it and report it.
We had only these two small statutes to work with -- small in length and small in scope. One made it a crime to conspire to deprive a citizen of his civil rights. That was the only statute under which we could prosecute individuals. The other one was against officials -- people who violated civil rights "under color of law." That meant the sheriff, and the policeman, and so on. That is all we had to work with.
The other problem of law which had to be developed was: what are rights protected by the Constitution? Of course the big broad jurisdiction that we had came under three amendments; the 13th, 14th, and 15th.
The right to vote was very clear, both from the Constitution and from subsequent cases, largely due to a memorandum from Harry M. Daugherty, the very corrupt Attorney General of the Harding administration. His interpretation came in connection with a request from the
Senate for a statement as to the law about restriction of campaign contributions.
They wanted to apply it to primary as well as general elections. Daugherty sent them this long memorandum saying that it was not legal to do so. The South, of course, had devised a scheme. They knew they weren't supposed to -- not that they couldn't -- bar Negroes from the general election, but they interpreted the primary as a private thing of a private club. So they excluded not only Negroes, but anybody else that they didn't want to have voting. They, of course, restricted it so far as the Republicans.
That was the way the law stood, and the Federal Government had no jurisdiction over the primaries. That was changed just about the time that our civil rights section was set up. We had a clear mandate about the right to vote. There were also some cases involving the rights
specifically given in various New Deal statutes - -the National Labor Relations Act and a few others.
Those acts defined the rights and we could bring a case when they were violated. We had quite a few of those labor acts in connection with the Negroes trying to organize. Those were very interesting cases.
Well, that's all we had in the way of clearly defined rights; so it was decided that one of the principal jobs of the civil rights section was to develop the interpretation of those rights so that we might cover a wider area of cruel violations in most cases. Our work was a combination of preparation of cases and work in the development of the law.
MCKINZIE: How widely were you known in the beginning?
BONTECOU: In the beginning we weren't very well-known. In the beginning our complaints rather rarely came from the injured person. They would
come from local citizens who knew about them, or they would come from labor or civil rights organizations. Gradually we had to do quite a bit of speaking, or preparation of speeches. We spread the gospel as best we could. That was not a very definite duty. With seven people you couldn't have that.
Of course, this was tricky business; our work was unpopular in the places where most of the cases arose. We felt that things had to be kept under strict control by the Department of Justice.
One of the few things in the nature of a directive or a policy was that the local attorneys could not instigate a case without first referring to the sections. Normally, the local United States Attorney carried on these lower level cases on his own initiative. It was desirable that local participation should be as great as possible. Once a case was agreed to, the local
United States Attorney carried it on, but we would send down a representative from the section to help him. Occasionally, for various reasons, someone would go who would really carry the major work of the trial. That was the way we operated. There were a lot of people who were interested in the work we were doing on that job.
It quickly became evident, especially in the complaints that came from the small Southern centers, that the leading citizens that made the complaints were not willing to appear in public. Of course, you can't carry on a case unless you have witnesses. The victims themselves were either too frightened to testify, or they were so ignorant that they couldn't. These people were very, very difficult witnesses, but that wouldn't stop us from taking the case.
We instituted what was then a unique policy in the criminal division. When the notice of a case first came to us, we would tell the FBI to make a preliminary investigation just to see
what witnesses they could find who were willing to give us information or to testify. (Incidentally the FBI received a lot of these complaints also.) If you couldn't get anybody to testify, you were stymied, and you couldn't have a full investigation. This was a unique policy at the time, which somebody I noticed the other day tried to misuse in the election cases.
Those were the only three things that could be classified as directives -- the original; the investigation; and a centrally controlled prosecution.
Now, whom did these complaints involve? Well, to a very large extent the Southern Negroes who were being treated in many cases as if there had never been a Reconstruction. They lived in fear just as they had many years ago.
MCKINZIE: When you say a very large part, what do you mean?
BONTECOU: I would think 50 percent or maybe more,
and then all the rest were distributed in a number of areas. In those days there were lots of cases against Jehovah's Witnesses who were unpopular because of their stand against the war; and also they weren't awfully tactful in those days. They are much more tactful now than they used to be. Even in these other groups the complaints were still largely from the South. Evidently the attitude towards the Negro carried over to anything that was unpopular. There were some cases against Japanese citizens. They, too, originated in the South. Then there were rights under the election laws which were scattered around, and as I have said, the peonage was in the South. We also had jurisdiction over lynchings in which we never got beyond attempting an indictment. We couldn't.
MCKINZIE: Why do you say you couldn't?
BONTECOU: If the grand jury wouldn't indict, we couldn't go any further. And with very clear evidence and all, they still wouldn't indict. We were trying to overcome a popular attitude as well as the crimes. We had one case of a group of Negroes being run out of town. That was a very interesting case, but I don't know how you'd classify that exactly, except the right to live in peace. Oh, I think I've left out some other sources. I said riots, lynchings, and election laws.
MCKINZIE: Were there any cases involving the Detroit riot in 1943?
BONTECOU: We sent people out there. It was impossible to get a satisfactory investigation. These riots almost always had lynchings, and they usually occurred in July and August. This was a very hot night in Detroit and everybody was out to get air. There was a little bar where a lot of
the Negroes were gathered together, and it was said that somebody suddenly jumped up and said that a white man had snatched a Negro baby from his mother's arms and thrown it into the river and that started a riot. We never could find any possible identification of that alleged man or any one who could say they actually saw or heard him -- he vanished. If he existed, he vanished into thin air, and there was nobody else that we could have arrested for disorderly conduct in the course of the riot. That man remains a mysterious figure to this day.
MCKINZIE: Some of your people went out there didn't they?
BONTECOU: Yes. They went with the U.S. Attorney to decide what could or should be done. It was the same way with lynchings. We could get as far as a grand jury investigation and get a certain amount of very respectable testimony,
but we then knew it would not be enough for an indictment and that was the end. We did feel that the threat of the Federal law hung over people all the time and that was a restraint. Moreover, the better people became much braver about reporting and appearing as witnesses. That was a very thin accomplishment, but it was something.
You would be surprised how well you could size up your witnesses from preliminary investigations. When we got a good investigation we would sometimes prepare the case for the local attorneys. This meant we checked each witness and gave an appraisal of the worth of their testimony. We lined up what the testimony would actually be and sent that on to the local attorney because he was very inexperienced in these cases, but he would then carry on the case himself.
We had the big job of publicizing ourselves
in order to be sure we got cases. There were a good many meetings at which the Attorney General, the Solicitor General, the heads of the unions, other high officials, or even some of us as individual attorneys would speak, and the material from all that had to be prepared. When Mr. [Francis] Biddle went to Cornell to speak in a series of speeches that they had on the whole broad issue of civil rights, I had to prepare most of the material for that. So that was the kind of thing that also took our time and energies.
Two sad things occurred as the result of our limited jurisdiction. The most pitiful complaints used to come in from prisons, especially for some reason from Railford Prison in Florida, which was recently rated inadequate by the Federal Government. It was felt that we had no jurisdiction in the prisons. People would be beaten and there was nothing we could do.
MCKINZIE: Were there any cases involving Indians or Mexican-Americans?
BONTECOU: The Mexican-Americans. That's another thing that I felt very sad about. A very fine gentleman who was one of the leaders around San Antonio came up to talk over that situation. The kind of complaints that he had to make were not as yet covered. They weren't covered until the new Civil Rights Act.
One of the problems was that Mexican-American children were forced to go to a Negro school. Our little narrow jurisdiction didn't cover this sort of thing. Then we got a very bad setback that put us back on our heels.
There was a case of police brutality which we won in the lower court and the Court of Appeals. The case went on to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court in that case absolutely put a stop to that part of our jurisdiction. It said that unless some court or statute already specifically declared that to be a right within
the meaning of the Constitution we could not prosecute it. It was about that time that I left.
MCKINZIE: What particular case was it?
BONTECOU: That was known as the Screws case. I don't think that I had any material on the Screws case because I didn't handle it at all. I'm sorry to say that before I got this request I had thrown away some things when I was clearing my files, but I'm sure that I didn't have anything on the Screws case. Although, of course, we were all concerned in every one of the important cases.
MCKINZIE: Among the lawyers who were working with this unit was there much discussion about the need for revisal of the legislation at that time?