US officials probe Alabama counties for voting-rights violations. Political power struggle prompts charges by blacks against blacks
Eutaw, Ala. — Trees shade the white, two-story, Greene County Courthouse here. Across the street from a small Greyhound bus station is a newsstand with a poster affixed to it reading: ``Vote: your privilege; your obligation.'' But for many blacks here and across the South, the privilege of voting was reserved primarily for whites until federal laws began to change that in the 1960s.
Now the Justice Department is again investigating, in 10 predominantly black southern Alabama counties, allegations that voting rights of blacks are being denied.
This time, however, the allegations by blacks are against other blacks, including some longtime civil rights workers. Three blacks have been indicted so far.
Most of the allegations are coming from black elected officials, according to the Justice Department. The allegations are that some black leaders in the 10 counties manipulated absentee ballots in the 1984 elections.
Despite the fact that blacks are accusing blacks, Joseph Lowery, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, once headed by the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., has denounced the indictiments as an illegal ``intimidation'' of blacks by whites.
But J. B. Sessions III, the US attorney prosecuting one of the blacks, says, ``I don't know of a single allegation of voter fraud by whites of any significant kind.''
``My door is open'' to such complaints, he added.
Sources familiar with the issues say a ``power struggle'' between Democratic black political factions has given rise to the allegations. Blacks already hold most of the public offices in these counties. In some cases it is the black incumbents who have initiated the allegations.
As black voter participation has grown over the years, such struggles have become more common across the South in areas where blacks have a majority vote and can choose between black candidates and not just between a white or black candidate.
And in this case, in these mostly rural counties, where jobs are often hard to come by, the focus of the struggle appears to be control of the county courthouses and the patronage jobs that go with that control.
Unfortunately, such disputes could prolong unemployment problems in these areas, according to one Alabama source who made the observation not for attribution.
The squabbles are likely to discourage the recruitment of new businesses or industries to these counties, especially since one faction of blacks is refusing to work with resident whites, this source says.
``The issue is how we can get back in the courthouse,'' says Robert Turner, a black attorney in Greene County. ``It's a basic political struggle geared toward control and power. When you're out, you want in,'' he says.
His brother, Albert Turner, of nearby Perry County, is one of three blacks indicted so far in the investigation. Judging from the number of voters questioned by the FBI in the 10 counties, blacks interviewed said more indictments are expected, including some here in Greene County.
In an interview in his living room, Albert Turner, a longtime civil rights leader, denied any wrongdoing. He is accused in a federal indictment of ``the casting and tabulation of false, fictitious, spurious, and fradulently altered absentee ballots.''
In these rural counties, black vote-drive leaders of both factions encourage people not going to the polls to vote absentee.
Under the state law, helping an illiterate person or handicapped person mark the ballot is legal. But Albert Turner and two others are accused of changing the ballots on their own, among other things.
``I personally changed peoples' [absentee] ballots in their presence and at their request,'' Turner says. The prosecution will attempt to show the changes were made without the consent of the voters.
Turner says the allegations of voter fraud are politically motivated. ``We are no longer [only] looking for black faces [to run for county offices],'' he said. ``We're looking for black people with qualities to run the government and produce the fruits. This is causing an in-fight in the black community.''
One faction is working with white voters, forming coalitions to win elections, he says. The other faction, of which he is a part, is not cooperating with whites in this way, he says. Some blacks contend that whites encouraged blacks within the coalition to bring the voter fraud charges.
Without offering specific information, Albert Turner, his brother Robert, and others speaking in their favor, allege that the Justice Department is unfairly targeting for investigation those blacks leading Alabama vote drives, while ignoring complaints of voter fraud by whites.
Justice Department spokesman Joe Krovisky, in Washington, says the department's voter-fraud investigations in recent years have targeted whites, blacks, Hispanics, members of other ethinic groups, Republicans, and Democrats, in the South and elsewhere.
The complaints against Albert Turner, a resident of Perry County, came from blacks, Mr. Sessions said.
Here in Greene County, black county tax assessor John Kennard was one of those who made allegations of absentee-ballot manipulations by other blacks.
``I requested the FBI investigation,'' Mr. Kennard explained in an interview in his cramped office in the Greene County Courthouse.
``The other side knew they could not beat us,'' said Kennard. ``We had the majority of blacks and the white community.''
Kennard contends that some blacks in Greene County turned to cheating with absentee ballots as a desperate measure to have their candidates elected.
Kennard contends the blacks now out of power ``padded the payroll'' when they were in power. ``The government had just become a joke,'' he says. The newly elected Greene County Commission, is considering steps to freeze some county spending and trim jobs.