Tennessee's only black member of Congress again faces bank fraud charges Trial of Rep. Harold Ford threatens to polarize Memphis on racial lines

February 28, 1993|By New York Times News Service

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Rep. Harold E. Ford, Tennessee's first an only black member of Congress, goes on trial on federal bank fraud charges tomorrow, two years after a first jury deadlocked along racial lines.

The case centers on what seems to be a straightforward charge that he accepted up to $1.2 million in personal payments under the guise of business loans. But the case has become entwined with the rise of black political power here in the last two decades and the ascendancy of Mr. Ford and his family.

The charges have already brought about the downfall of Jacob F. Butcher and C. H. Butcher Jr., two brothers whose banks once extended throughout the state. After their banking network failed in 1983, both men were sentenced to 20 years in prison for defrauding depositors of $20 million.

The payments that Mr. Ford is accused of accepting came from their banks, and prosecutors say the transaction was an effort to cement alliances between the Butchers and the state's most powerful black politician.

Through it all, Mr. Ford has contended that the prosecution was racially and politically motivated. His accusations have been given considerable credence in this city, 55 percent black, where the Ford family commands respect among blacks for their aggressive championing of black causes and where the family commands a powerful political machine as well.

While Mr. Ford has held the city's main congressional seat for the last 18 years, a brother has served as a member of the City Council and another holds both a state Senate seat and a court post that controls, among other things, pension investments for some city workers.

The extent of that power was evident last week when Mr. Ford managed, with the help of the Congressional Black Caucus, to get a hearing from the top levels of the Clinton administration for his contention that a federal court's decision to select a jury from outside the city was unfair.

As a result, the Justice Department late last week reversed its long support of the court's plan to select jurors from a predominantly white, rural section of the state and asked the court to reconsider the process. "I think he has consistently been the most popular political figure for blacks in Memphis for the past two decades," said Maxine Smith, executive secretary of the Memphis National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

But among many whites in the Memphis area, Mr. Ford not only symbolizes black political power but the tensions and confrontations that accompany transitions from white to black political dominance.

"A lot of whites are not prepared for all the changes that have taken place," said David Cocke, who is white and is the former chairman of the Memphis Democratic Party organization. "And Harold does not pander to that vote. He has a more confrontational style."

Some in the city are concerned that racial friction will be intensified by the Ford trial. Mayor Willie W. Herenton, the city's first black mayor, said last week that the trial had "caused a deepening racial division in our city" and urged residents to act responsibly in the coming weeks.

Aides to Mr. Ford said he had been the subject of death threats telephoned to the court clerk's office.

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