Griffin, Anthony P. 1954—
Anthony P. Griffin 1954—
Anthony Griffin is a Galvestonbased civil rights lawyer with a difference. Remembering his own humble roots, he has chosen to invest more than $2 million to finance an office-block and shopping complex in the city’s poorest neighborhood. In this way, he hopes to encourage government investment in sidewalks, garbage collection, and beautification, which he feels are sorely neglected. He also has a well-earned reputation as a fierce defender of First Amendment rights for all American citizens, whether their message is popular or not.
All this is enough to bring prominence to any civil rights activist. Yet Anthony Griffin insists on keeping a low profile in all matters unrelated directly to his legal practice. “I don’t give up information surrounding myself because a lot of times the first line of attack is your loved ones. I don’t take risks that others are willing to take simply because of what I do for a living, “is his uncompromising statement on this matter.
Griffin was born in 1954, in Baytown, Texas. He is reticent even on the matter of his youth, noting merely that he was one of seven children. He chose to stay instate after graduating from the University of Texas Law Center, and went into practice on his own, in Galveston.
While he practices within several legal specialities, he is particularly sought after for matters dealing with civil rights issues. He keeps his name on a panel of lawyers who volunteer their services pro bono for the American Civil Liberties Union, and did the same for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples until October 1993, when their association came to an abrupt end.
This drama involved several major players. The kingpin was Anthony Griffin himself, who was representing a member of the sinister Ku Klux Klan in a matter involving freedom of speech. Appearing at the request of the ACLU, Griffin was cool, sure of his legal stance, and determined to stand stoutly behind the First Amendment, which guarantees free speech to all citizens in a democratic country like America. Just as determined in their opposition to his appearance was the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples, a longtime friend for whom Griffin had also appeared without fee.
Born in Baytown, Texas, 1954; son of Leon (waiter) and Georgia (seamstress). Education: Qualified 1978 from the University of Houston Law Center.
Career: Admitted 1978; practice: Civil, Civil Rights Law, Employment Law, Labor Law.
Awards: 1993: Black Heritage Festival, Galveston: Citizen of the Year. William Brennan Award from the Thomas Jefferson Center for Freedom of Expression. Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Award; James Madison Award, ACLU’s Harry Kalven Freedom of Expression Award.
The roots of the problem went back to the beginning of 1993, when Vidor, an all-white town Texan town near the Louisiana border, began to carry out a court order to integrate its public housing complex. During the year Vidor’s 11,000-strong population increased, but the town’s first black residents in 70 years, were not permitted to live in peace. The Ku Klux Klan saw to that.
By the time the events of Vidor came up, the Ku Klux Klan had had almost 130 years to hone their racism. Much given to harassment, lynching, and even murder to make their presence known, from their earliest days they had sallied forth dressed in hooded white shrouds and bearing burning crosses, bent on bringing misery and destruction to anyone in their path who happened to be Jewish, Catholic, or black. While neither hoods nor robes appeared at the Vidor housing complex, the bullying and the intimidation were so virulent that the Texas Human Rights Commission issued a restraining order against the two Klan groups responsible for most of the action. In addition, there were were several cameras on-site, to record the presence of placards bearing such messages as “I Will Work to Keep Vidor White, Will You?” Also noted were the actions of Michael Lowe, grand dragon of one of the Klan groups, who was shown knocking on the door of a new black resident and taunting him.
This protracted harassment spurred the Texas Human Rights Commission to demand membership lists and accompanying financial information first from Charles Lee, leader of the White Camelia Klan based in Cleveland, Texas, then from Michael Lowe, whose Knights of the Ku Klux Klan is affiliated with the Arkansas-based group behind grand dragon-turned state legislator David Duke. Both Lee and Lowe balked at this government demand. Eventually Lee complied, after a contempt of court charge landed him in jail for 12 days. Lowe, however, was made of sterner stuff. He refused to hand over his documents, choosing instead to call the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and ask for representation.
An organization formed in 1920 especially to preserve the constitutional rights of Americans to freedom of speech, religion, and expression, the ACLU has long been accustomed to such requests from unpopular groups who want protection from government interference. In just one instance, its exercise of the First Amendment’s mandate to allow free speech and assembly guaranteed a Nazi group the right to march in Skokie, Illinois in 1978, despite the anguished protests of the Holocaust survivors who lived there. This may seem unfair, but as constitutional lawyer Linda Monk reminds us, in her book The Bill of Rights: A User’s Guide, the ACLU follows the reasoning of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who specified that the First Amendment is not designed to protect “free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.”
It was this Holmesian directive that made the ACLU grant the request of Ku Klux Klan grand dragon Michael Lowe. They consulted their list of lawyer volunteers, and without making any distinction between blacks and whites, picked a name—Anthony Griffin of Galveston.
For any lawyer, a pro bono appearance is an undertaking that requires a careful decision. Not only does he forego any fees for his work and his preparation—he also loses the opportunity to earn money by spending his time in ways which will earn him a reward. As an experienced lawyer, Griffin understood all this. He was also quite aware of the strange quirk of fate requiring him, an African American lawyer with an impeccable civil rights record, to defend the free speech rights of the group symbolizing the ugliest racism in America.
Still, Griffin accepted the case immediately. “I considered it an honor,” he said to the Chicago Defender, in September 1993. “It is anytime you have the opportunity to defend the Bill of Rights. “But this was not his only reason for accepting the challenge. He had a very distinct memory of a 1958 case known as NAACP v Alabama, in which the NAACP had been ordered to produce its membership lists for state inspection. When their refusal landed them in court, First Amendment protection had granted the NAACP the power to keep their membership lists private, on the grounds that public disclosure might subject their members to reprisals. Now, that First Amendment protection had to be extended to a far less worthy organization. “Lord knows, don’t hear me say I’m an apologist for the Klan,” he told the Washington Post, on September 29th, 1993, the day the legal proceedings began. “But it’s very easy to give the First Amendment to groups we like ... It’s very difficult to apply those principles to people who anger us.”
As every single newspaper covering the ensuing legal proceedings remarked, Griffin and Lowe made an odd couple. Griffin was 38 years old, poised, and highly educated. His client, on the other hand, was a carpenter with a high school education, who admitted to having spent six years in jail for burglary. At 44 years of age, Lowe was still living with his “mama” and his “daddy” in Waco, where his Klan robe hung behind his bedroom door. He was still boasting of the huge tattoo on his back which showed a robed Klansman, and, even after being caught bullying the residents of the Vidor housing complex, he was still claiming to be a separatist rather than a white supremacist.
He was also still eager to tell the New York Times all about his first meeting with the lawyer assigned to him by the ACLU. “I saw this NAACP pin on the wall,” he said.” Then I started looking at the shelves, and there were these books on African and African American history.” Then, Lowe continued, realization dawned. “Holy moly!” he told his girlfriend, “I think this guy’s black!” Griffin, well-acquainted with the Klan and its position in the community, felt no such amazement. All accounts of the meeting agree that he took brisk control of the situation, and curtly gave Lowe to understand that this case was not about relationships between African Americans and the Ku Klux Klan—it concerned only the First Amendment rights of free speech.
As he had expected, Griffin won his case. In applause the Galvesto n County Observer News/ An African American Monthly Newspaper, which remarked: “For those who do not want the Ku Klux Klan to have their rights protected, you should consider which of your rights you are willing to give up because the Klan has to give up theirs. It may be you giving up yours tomorrow.”
Nevertheless, it was a Pyrrhic victory at best. Having worked against vicious Klan discrimination since its establishment in 1909, the NAACP felt bitterly betrayed. Unable to see that their opposition to giving First Amendment rights to the Klan was also a form of discrimination, they chose to fire Griffin from their roster of lawyer-volunteers. “When he represented the Klansman in court ... he voluntarily relinquished his post,” Gary Bledsoe, president of the Texas NAACP informed the Chicago Tribune. “By representing the Klan, he is in direct conflict with the mission of the NAACP. “They were not alone in this view. “We can only wonder, “came a caustic comment from the New York Amsterdam News, “what the thousands of people lynched, burned, beaten, and maimed by the Klan since the end of the Civil War would feel about Griffin’s noblesse oblige.”
Griffin himself was mystified by all the enmity. I had no idea it would be like this,” he remarked to Starita Smith of Emerge magazine. “I thought that we could fight the fight and get it over with.” Instead, he found himself reluctantly accepting invitations for radio and television interviews, in order to emphasize the significance of the First Amendment and its importance for all Americans, whether they hold popular views or not. “I don’t like the Klan, but if I don’t stand up and defend the Klan’s right to free speech, my right to free speech will be gone,” was the essence of his message.
In 1995 he took the matter further, and chose to add a chapter to a multi-author book called Speaking of Race, Speaking of Sex: Hate Speech, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties. Griffin’s section consisted of three fables, each one illustrating one of his major points about the First Amendment. He made his point, though the book received lukewarm reviews at best.
Before the book was off the press the Klan came to him with another problem. This time, they wanted to join the state’s eight-year-old Adopt-A-Highway Program, which promised a sign with their name on it in exchange for regular litter removal in their designated area. The stretch of highway concerned was in Vidor, not far from the housing complex that had felt their influence a year before. As Houston Chronicle staff reporter Wendy Benjaminson noted, several groups of prisoners, pit-bull fanciers, and nudists were given the opportunity to become blacktop parents for the purpose of trash control, but the courts denied the Klan this right.
There was no evasion about why the group had been turned down. “It is the opinion of this court that the Ku Klux Klan has applied to adopt a highway as subterfuge to intimidate those minority residents already living in the Vidor housing complex, and to discourage further desegregation,” wrote U.S. District Judge Joe Fisher. Even Griffin agreed that the Klan was more interested in making a point about free expression than in picking up trash. But, ever the realist, he had to note that barring them from this activity was unlikely to prevent people from uttering racist epithets while walking past this or any other housing complex. Alas, life does not work that way.
Monk, Linda R, The Bill of Rights: A User’s Guide, Close-Up Publishing, 1991, p. 72.
Chicago Defender, September 20, 1993, p. 12.
Chicago Tribune, October 3, 1993, p. 21.
Emerge, March 31, 1995, p. 55.
Houston Chronicle, September 30, 1993, May 8, 1994; July 27, 1995, p. 36.
Houston Post, October 3, 1993, p. 31; October 22, 1993, p. A19; November 30, 1993, p. 12; December^ 1994, p. A1.
New Amsterdam News, September 11, 1993, p. 26.
Washington Post; September 4, 1993, p. A27; September 4, 1994, p.A47; September 29, 1993, p.A3; October 6,1993, p. A18; June 25, 1994, P. Al: January 27, 1995, p. C2.
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