In Texas County, Blacks Breathe Easier
When Dist. Atty. Oliver Kitzman announced his plans to resign from office, black leaders here compared it to nothing less than the Emancipation Proclamation.
Kitzman, a political fixture in Waller County who caused a firestorm last year when he questioned whether students at a local black college could vote in local elections, announced during a county Republican Party meeting that he would step down later this month. He later said in an interview that his reasons were “personal and private” and had nothing to do with allegations of discrimination.
Black community leaders, however, said Kitzman had become a symbol of deep-seated racism in their community. And that as welcome as his resignation was, they knew their work had just begun.
In lawsuits, documented complaints to authorities and interviews, civic leaders pieced together a detailed allegation of what they called a “reign of terror” shouldered by the black community here.
Kitzman and other white officials denied that anyone had been targeted or harassed because of race.
But black leaders described the county as a throwback to a time the South had tried to overcome -- a time when black men were called “boys,” or worse, and whites walled off the political and justice systems to keep blacks out.
They allege not only that crude intimidation techniques were used -- rocks thrown through house windows, police cars passing slowly and repeatedly by homes of black “troublemakers” -- but even schemes to suppress blacks’ voting rights.
They charged that authorities routinely declined to pursue cases brought against white residents by black residents. Conversely, they said, flimsy charges and indictments were frequently drummed up against black community leaders, only to result in dropped charges and acquittals, but not before damage was done to reputations and meager bank accounts.
“It is selective prosecution. This is the new front in civil rights,” said Waller County Judge DeWayne Charleston, a black justice of the peace who repeatedly faced ethics and timecard falsification charges. He has been cleared by state ethics officials and has not been convicted of a crime.
“The objective is not to get a conviction,” he said. “They don’t care about that. The objective is to hit you in your wallet, to discredit you, to disenfranchise you.”
Waller County, population 35,000 or so, is a 518-square-mile smattering of country towns and hayfields that has historically been isolated from the big cities of east Texas.
Kitzman said racial tension in Waller County would disappear “if we took several of the players and sent them to Los Angeles.”
“If we could eliminate the stuff they scatter around, we wouldn’t have any problems here,” he said.
Kitzman served as the district attorney of a three-county area, including Waller, from 1967 until 1979, becoming best known for a hands-off approach to a famous local brothel that prospered and became the inspiration for “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.” He served as a judge until January 2003, when he became the top law enforcement official in the county.
Upon his return, he announced that students at Prairie View A&M; University, where 96% of the 5,000 students are black, might not be eligible to vote in local elections.
Even though the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled 24 years earlier that students could vote where they attended college in most cases, Kitzman threatened to prosecute students who voted in the wrong county. To black leaders here, it was a clear attempt to confuse and intimidate black voters. Following protests, lawsuits and an investigation by the U.S. Justice Department, Texas state officials overruled Kitzman’s interpretation of the law and he backed off.
Kitzman was one of eight white county officials named last month in a federal lawsuit filed by six black community activists that alleged, among other things, discrimination, civil rights violations and malicious prosecution. The officials who could be reached for comment declined to discuss specific allegations but denied that race or bias was a factor in their decisions.
“I get along good with everybody,” said Waller County Sheriff Randy Smith, one of those named in the suit. “All this nonsense, it’s kind of silly.”
Waller County Republican Party chairwoman Ann Davis said she was convinced that Kitzman’s resignation, announced Aug. 26, was not because of the allegations but for family reasons. “He is a just man,” she said. “He always does what he thinks is right.”
Davis, who was not named in the lawsuit, said the group’s allegations did not depict the community she knew. “Waller County is my home,” she said. “People get along here.”
That was true, said Herschel Smith, the head of an activist group called the Waller County Leadership Council, but only for whites and blacks who don’t “step out of line.” He said many black pastors, government officials and civic activists had become accustomed to an unsettling pattern.
“You get charged, so you have to post bail,” Smith said. “Then you have to hire an attorney. Then you’ve got to take days off of work so you can go to court and deal with the charge. So you lose your job. So you’re broke. So you get evicted. Can you believe this still goes on today?”
Smith alleged that he had been assaulted last year by a white politician after a tense meeting. A police detective confirmed that she has filed a misdemeanor assault charge in the altercation, although the district attorney’s office so far has declined to pursue the case.
Smith’s allegation was one of many contained in the lawsuit and in other documented complaints to authorities.
Jerryl A. Brandyberg, a science and ROTC instructor at an area high school and an election judge, said he had been falsely accused of voting in the wrong place because he maintained a home in San Antonio.
He said he had been charged even though he had told authorities that his family had a second home there because his wife, who is in the military, worked nearby. Brandyberg, who is black, said he had been targeted unfairly and accused of voting irregularities simply because white officials did not like the outcome of a municipal election he recently had overseen. His case is expected to go to trial this year.
“Any charge these people can muster against you, they will take it,” he said. “You hear about a new case all the time. Everyone in this county knows it goes on.”
Kitzman is expected to step down Sept. 16. He said it saddened him to leave office under such circumstances.
“But I’ll be all right,” he said. “I’d rather have rode out of here on a big white horse, but it’s not necessary. I’ve had a very rewarding career. Life goes on.”
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