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Black student voters allege harassment in Texas

By
MARK LANGFORD

AUSTIN, Texas -- The 1964 Civil Rights Act may have killed Jim Crow and the laws of segregation, but blacks in southeast Texas say his ghost is haunting Waller County.

The predominately white county northwest of Houston is home to predominately black Prairie View A&M University. For years, black students say, county officials have tried to harass and intimidate them from voting in local elections.

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Now, according to the students and several black state lawmakers, county officials are trying to use trumped-up criminal charges to discourage student voting.

'It looks like there's a number of ghosts of Jim Crow walking around Walker County,' said state Sen. Rodney Ellis, D-Houston. 'At some point, you have to draw the line.'

Ellis and another black legislator, state Sen. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas, asked the Justice Department last week to investigate the alleged harassment of black student voters at Prairie View A&M.

The request was prompted by the recent indictments of 14 students on voting fraud charges by a Waller County grand jury.

The indictments were returned just two weeks before a local runoff election involving two black candidates. One of those candidates, Frank Jackson, challenged and defeated a 16-year white incumbent for a seat on the county commissioners court. Another black, El-Roy Stephenson, won his runoff race for county constable.

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Their victories, Ellis said, is evidence of the black voting power that Waller County wants to suppress.

Since the students had not received their voter registration cards in the mail, they signed affidavits at the polls swearing that they had registered to vote. The county election commissioner then alleged that the students had not registered, and prosecutors filed criminal charges against them.

'Can you imagine registering, showing up to vote and seven or eight days later receiving a subpoena from the district attorney, being indicted, then taken to jail and fingerprinted?' Ellis said. 'These kids are scared to death.'

Waller County officials deny any racist intent.

District Attorney Peter Speers said he simply wants to ensure that everyone votes legally, and that the rights of all citizens -- black and white -- are protected.

Speers told the Austin American-Statesman the allegation of racism 'gets rolled out any time people have a political agenda.' Racism, he said, 'has nothing to do with this.'

But in their letter to Assistant U.S. Attorney John Dunne, Ellis and Johnson insist that all of the students registered to vote.

'All of the students maintain, with a firmness of conviction that removes all doubt, that they filled out the appropriate registration forms,' the senators said. 'Under Texas law, to vote illegally the voter must know he or she is voting illegally. In other words, a voter who followed the proper procedures cannot be held responsible for the clerical errors of the registration officials.'

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Carl Moore Jr., one of five students who were also indicted for aggravated perjury, was accused of voting in two different counties on the same election day. The senators said the prosecutor's office failed to notice that it was Moore's father who voted in the other county.

'It appears that the only crime Carl could fairly have been accused of is having the same name as his father,' they said.

In the letter to Dunne, Ellis and Johnson detailed a 20-year history of alleged black voter intimidation by local officials. They said the school's 5,000 students have the ability to substantially influence local elections, and the county 'has done everything in its power' to deter the students from voting.

'If you follow Texas politics, Waller County has an ignoble history of depriving minority voters of the right to vote,' Ellis said.

In the 1970s, Prairie View students went to court when the county registrar required them to fill out an extensive questionnaire when they registered to vote. The questionnaire sought information on church and club memberships, among other things.

Ellis said the questionnaires were required only of Prairie View students. 'No other example of it occurred in any part of the state, where registration was automatic upon proper application.'

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The practice was brought to an end in the late 1970s by a federal court.

In the 1980s, black voting power was diluted in Waller County when the redistricting process was used to carve the student population into several different precincts.

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