NAACP fires attorney for defending Klansman

October 04, 1993|By Chicago Tribune

AUSTIN, Texas -- Depending on whom you ask, Anthony Griffin, a civil rights attorney from the gulf coast city of Galveston, is either a hero or a fool.

Mr. Griffin, 39, gained statewide prominence as a champion of minority rights. During his 16-year career, he fought for integrated housing in parts of Texas that had remained segregated until earlier this year and he helped established a predominantly black voting district in Galveston County, among other achievements.

Now he is in the spotlight again, only this time he is under attack by the very group he has loyally served: the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

During the weekend, as the Texas conference of the NAACP gathered for its 57th annual convention, it was announced that Mr. Griffin no longer represents the group.

Gary Bledsoe, president of the Texas NAACP, said Mr. Griffin had been dismissed as general counsel, a pro-bono position he has held for the past year and a half, because he represented Michael Lowe, grand dragon of the Waco-based Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, in an Austin court last week.

Mr. Lowe had been ordered to produce membership lists and other Klan records so that state investigators could probe allegations that the civil rights of some blacks were violated in the east Texas town of Vidor. Mr. Griffin believes that order violates Mr. Lowe's rights under the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment.

Last month, the nearly all-white town of Vidor drew national attention when the last two black residents of a public housing complex fled after protests and threats by the KKK.

"When he represented the Klansman in court Wednesday, he voluntarily relinquished his post," Mr. Bledsoe said. "By representing the Klan, he is in direct conflict with the mission of the NAACP."

Mr. Griffin also serves as a volunteer general counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, and the ACLU referred the case to him initially not knowing he was a black.

But Mr. Griffin says he was honored to take the case, not because he supports the Klan but because it means defending the First Amendment, which in the past has been used to protect the NAACP, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Nation of Islam leader Rev. Louis Farrakhan.

If the law is not evenly applied to the Klan, Mr. Griffin believes, it could come back to haunt blacks.

"It is hard . . . to give free speech for those we hate, but that is what the Bill of Rights is all about," said Mr. Griffin, a graduate of the University of Houston Law School. "It is to protect those we hate, those who stand up on street corners and bother us in public."

Reached in New Orleans Friday night after his removal had been announced, Mr. Griffin said, "No one has called me, no one has written me, no one has given me the decency of telling me what's going on. I didn't resign the position; I was fired."

He asked why there had been no intervention from the executive director of the national NAACP, Benjamin Chavis.

"The people in Texas are mature enough and intelligent enough to handle the problems in Texas," said Lewis Myers Jr., deputy executive director of the national office at a news conference here Saturday morning.

While upsetting many in the NAACP, Mr. Griffin's case has also brought the ACLU under attack. Some NAACP officials, civil rights leaders, legal experts and educators have reopened the debate over whether the ACLU allows the First Amendment to supersede the other amendments in the Bill of Rights.

Such controversy has tormented the ACLU in the past. In 1977, when the ACLU supported a neo-Nazi group's right to march in Skokie, Ill. where numerous Holocaust survivors live, the liberal organization lost about 10 percent of its membership.

Such issues have forced the ACLU to review its position on the First Amendment, especially when it appears to conflict with the civil rights of minorities and women.

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