Saturday, June 18, 2011

Dallas Political Activist Al Lipscomb Dead @ Age 86



Albert Louis “Al” Lipscomb, the outspoken political activist who oscillated between crowning achievements and humiliating disgraces, died at his daughter’s home early Saturday. He was 86.
Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price said Lipscomb died about 4:30 a.m., surrounded by family. Price called Lipscomb his “father in consciousness” because he inspired the commissioner and so many others to fight civil injustice.

Lipscomb was a leader in efforts that helped black Dallas residents gain a toehold in city politics and was the lead plaintiff in the successful lawsuit that ended the unconstitutional at-large system of electing council members.
Longtime South Dallas leader Diane Ragsdale recalled that Lipscomb recruited her into the civil rights movement when she was a student at James Madison High School and that he served as her political mentor for many years thereafter.
“He was one of the strong warriors and soldiers early on, and sometimes he was out there by himself,” she said.

Lipscomb’s agitation of the city’s white power structure and his groundbreaking lawsuit were keys to bringing a measure of social justice to a city long divided along racial lines, she said.

“He and his family made tremendous sacrifices so that he could give a voice to the voiceless and power to those who were powerless,” she said.
Former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, now the U.S. trade representative, called Lipscomb a complex man who loved his family and the city.

“He was lovable, irascible and at times a hell-raiser,” Kirk said. “But we never questioned his love for the city and his passion for justice…He could rail at you one moment, but always come back and put his arm around you.”
In 1995, Kirk became the first black mayor elected in Dallas; years later, he would preside over the city's first minority-majority council. He also was mayor when a majority of the council was composed of women.

“All that can be traced back to Al's fight,” Kirk said. “He was willing to speak out for the rights of women and people of color when it wasn't popular to do so.”
Mayor Dwaine Caraway said that Lipscomb paved the way for people like him.
“I would not be the mayor today had it not been for Al Lipscomb and the doors he opened,” Caraway said.
Lipscomb’s abrasive style frustrated many people, particularly in Dallas’ white establishment.
But agitation was needed, Caraway said.
“He had his own style that was fit for that particular time,” said Caraway, who grew up knowing the fiery council member.

Ragsdale also defended Lipscomb’s style.
“Oftentimes those people in power don’t move until they are pushed, until they are confronted. You must have people like Al Lipscomb to push people forward,” she said.
Price said it was noteworthy that Lipscomb died on the day of the Dallas mayoral runoff and a day before Juneteenth, the annual commemoration of the day when slaves in Texas found out they had been freed.

“He probably planned it that way,” Price said.
Lipscomb rose from a background that included doing time in a California jail to becoming one Dallas’ first blacks with political clout.
He was often either beloved or despised as he weaved his way thorough a public life, where the only constant seemed to be his amazing resilience.
He was the lead plaintiff in the landmark lawsuit that forced Dallas to elect council members by individual districts, and the first black candidate for Dallas mayor. He served 15 years on the council, including time as mayor pro tem.
“He’s been to Dallas what Martin Luther King Jr. was to the United States,” the late Mayor Jack Evans once said.

But there were low points in his career.
They included a February 2000 federal bribery conviction that forced him off the council. The conviction — for accepting payments from a taxicab operator — was later overturned.
Lipscomb always maintained he did nothing wrong and the case drew deep divisions in the city.
Supporters said he was never motivated by personal gain.
“He was one of the few civil rights leaders that had the people’s interest at heart,” said former Dallas NAACP leader Lee Alcorn. “That’s rare in civil rights and politics.”
Lipscomb’s entry to the Dallas civil rights movement was an improbable one.
He was a 40-year-old headwaiter when a scolding from his boss prompted him to become active in the struggle for equality.

From his earliest days as a street protester to his last as a dignified public figure, he was an outspoken and occasionally outrageous defender of civil rights and challenger of the status quo.
“I’ve been obnoxious, bodacious, unorthodox and I have been strident,” he once said. “That’s what I had to use; those are my tools for change.”
He survived term limits, the federal conviction and fragile health to remain a public voice in Dallas.

In 2005, he lost his last foray into the political arena. He campaigned for a spot on the City Council against incumbent James Fantroy.
The race was particularly contentious because Fantroy had provided financial aid to Lipscomb and his family during Lipscomb’s public corruption trial.
After the race, Lipscomb said that he only wanted to serve the people in his southern Dallas district, and that both men had emerged from the contest unbowed.
Lipscomb’s legacy is impressive, bruises and all.
He used show-stopping tactics to relentlessly denounce everything from police brutality and bus-fare increases to racist jury-selection practices.
Privately a gentle and polite man, he became the symbol of black militancy to many Dallas whites during the ’70s and ’80s. In 1997, he proudly noted that Mr. Evans was the only Dallas mayor in recent history who hadn’t ejected him from a City Council meeting.
In those days, he was called “the Lip.”
“My mother would say, ‘Albert, do you have to do it that way?’ ” he said. “I had to get their attention,” was his reply.
Lipscomb was born in East Dallas in a home built by his parents and maternal grandparents. He was educated in the Dallas public schools, attending Booker T. Washington High School and graduating from Lincoln High School.
He joined the Army Air Forces in 1943 and served four years in California with the Military Police.
“I was discharged out there, didn’t come home and got in trouble,” he said.
For a time, Lipscomb said, he was ashamed of his blackness to the point that he smeared his face with bleach to try to lighten his skin. He also turned to drugs.
Lipscomb served 10 months of a one-year jail sentence in California for selling heroin. Ashamed, he told his mother he was working in Alaska.
He was shocked by the waste of human potential he observed in jail. To counter it, he organized boxing matches and softball games.
After being released for good behavior, Lipscomb returned to Dallas, where he became headwaiter to a staff of nine at the executive dining room of First National Bank.
“I was the headwaiter, the headwaiter, from the tuxedo down,” he said. His duties included preparing a room where legendary oilman H.L. Hunt would eat lunch.
“We’d get a glass of water and a phone and you didn’t bother him,” Lipscomb said. Hunt, who was infamous for his economizing, brought his lunch and cleaned up after himself.
“When he got through, there wasn’t even a crumb,” Lipscomb said.
Lipscomb also waited dinner tables at Dallas’ finest restaurants, including La Tunisia, Chateaubriand and the Safari Club, as well as the Adolphus and Baker hotels.
In 1966 he joined Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, becoming a neighborhood organizer for the Dallas Community Action Agency. He was also and organizer for the Dallas chapter of King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
“It changed my life around,” he said. “I did a hell of a job, let me tell you.”
Lipscomb discovered he had a talent for getting access to decision makers who could move the bureaucracy.
In April 1971, Lipscomb was the first black candidate for mayor, finishing third out of a field of 10. The race cost Lipscomb his Block Partnership job.
In 1972, Lipscomb opened the South Dallas Information Center on Pennsylvania Avenue, where he handled a constant stream of phone calls and questions from passers-by seeking assistance. The center was supported by donations. He also kept his high profile by making the rounds of public meetings, asking embarrassing questions, leveling charges and offering suggestions.
In April 1984, after unsuccessful bids for county commissioner, the Texas Legislature, Congress and the Dallas school board, Lipscomb was elected to the City Council.
Avery Mays, the candidate of the Citizens Charter Association -- the white business group whose candidates had won every election since the 1930s -- was thought to be a shoo-in, Lipscomb said. “I threw my support to Wes Wise and we got it,” he said. “That broke the back of the CCA.”
The same year, Lipscomb was the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit that challenged Dallas’ citywide method of electing council members as unconstitutional. Years later, the city would capitulate, and minorities would routinely win council seats for the first time.
“Without him, all that would not have happened,” said Roy Williams, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit that led to the council being composed of 14 single-member districts and the mayor at-large. “He is a legend and we just finished what he started.”
In the late 1980s, Lipscomb and Ragsdale — the only blacks on the City Council — drew national media attention and local death threats.
Hundreds of police marched in protest on City Hall after Lipscomb and Ragsdale contributed to the legal defense fund of a black man accused of killing an officer. Someone with an ice pick once threatened Lipscomb and Ragsdale on an elevator.
While Lipscomb remained both a critic and skeptic of the city’s established leadership, he also embraced the city he loved.
“I see a great change,” he said. “I see a great change, a change for the better.”

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