Citizen Green: Thomas Farr and the ghosts of respectable racism

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Thomas Farr (left) leaving federal court in Winston-Salem in January 2016.

From the early 20th Century through the mid-1950s, white supremacy and Jim Crow segregation was the ruling order by custom and law in the South. To be sure, it was despised by blacks, Jews and some liberal whites, but mostly endured. It was always resisted, but until the advent of the mass movement in the mid-1950s the opposition consisted of marginal actors chipping away at the edges — civil rights lawyers, communist anti-lynching activists, progressive clergy, labor unionists.

Then, around 1965, the determined civil rights activists who shed blood while facing police dogs and water hoses flipped the narrative, abetted by mainline Protestant and reform Jewish clergy, the mainstream media and President Lyndon Johnson. From thereon, liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans alike would disavow segregation. Conservative resistance to black freedom would find new expression in appeals to law and order, leading to the advent of the war on drugs and mass incarceration.

The time when black people were denied full citizenship under the rule of segregation in the South wasn’t so long ago. Some of our parents and grandparents remember it. Whether our children grow up acclimatized to a resurgent order of ironclad white Christian nationalist oppression remains up in the air. It depends on whether people who believe in equality and inclusion have the courage to push back against the normalization and acceptance of bigotry.

White supremacy is so interwoven in American history and major institutions like education, healthcare, the courts and mass media that it can be hard to find language to effectively call out the equivalent to the Jim Crow segregation that systematically excluded blacks or anyone who didn’t meet the test of “white purity,” for that matter. That brand of racism is back on our doorstep with the election of Donald Trump and his appointment of Thomas Farr to a lifelong position as a federal judge in the Eastern District of North Carolina.

I sat behind Farr in a federal courtroom in Winston-Salem in 2015 when he represented Gov. Pat McCrory to defend North Carolina’s draconian voter suppression law. He proved to be unfailingly courteous, at one point holding the door for Rosanell Eaton, a 94-year-old African-American plaintiff, and wore a pained expression as plaintiffs’ experts argued that the law was designed to disproportionately burden black voters. On the first day of the trial, he took umbrage at references by the plaintiffs’ lead counsel to the bloody 1965 civil rights battle in Selma, Ala., saying, “Nobody in this courtroom looks back at what happened in Selma without feeling disgust.”

During his confirmation hearing before the US Senate Judiciary Committee in September, Farr proved unflappable in responding to Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s question about the Fourth Circuit’s finding that the North Carolina election law “target[ed] African Americans with almost surgical precision.”

“At the time our clients enacted those law, I do not believe that they thought they were purposely discriminating against African Americans,” Farr said.

Farr is more than just a lawyer tasked with representing unsavory clients from time to time. Farr got his professional start at the law firm of Thomas Ellis, who managed Jesse Helms’ 1972 US Senate campaign and launched the National Congressional Club as a fundraising vehicle for Helm and other conservatives. Farr would go on to provide his legal services to the Helms’ reelection campaigns in 1984 and 1990. Notably, Helms’ political career from 1972 to 2002 coincided with the low ebb of institutional white supremacy, but he never renounced segregation.

Prior to his Senate Judiciary hearing, Farr said in response to a written question by Sen. Diane Feinstein that he had not been aware of a 1990 campaign to send more than 100,000 postcards to black voters falsely suggesting that they were ineligible to vote and could be prosecuted for voter fraud if they did so. Gerald Hebert, formerly a federal investigator, told Indy Week last month that — contrary to his statement to Feinstein — Farr confirmed in 1990 that he was aware of the voter suppression campaign well before the US Justice Department brought it to his attention.

Farr did not respond to questions for this story.

Farr entered the legal profession after Jim Crow segregation had been discredited, but he’s part of a political lineage that comes out of a much darker period.

As the Southern Poverty Law Center reveals in an impressive report published on Monday, Thomas Ellis — Farr’s “longtime boss and mentor” — served as a director for the Pioneer Fund, an outfit founded in 1937 to pursue “race betterment” for those “deemed to be descended predominantly from white persons who settled in the original 13 states prior to the adoption of the Constitution.”

The fund was established by Wickliffe Draper, a reclusive textile heir, according to author William H. Tucker, who wrote, “It is undeniable that the fund was established to use science to pursue the goals of its founder: the preservation of white supremacy and white racial purity from the threat posed by blacks and undesirable immigrants, especially Jews.”

Draper’s money shaped important institutions that are familiar to Triad residents today. The Winston-Salem Journal revealed in a 2002 story that Draper, who was interested in eugenics, made a $100,000 donation — roughly equivalent to $650,000 today — to the Bowman Gray School of Medicine for its department of medical genetics in 1953.

“To me, the whole concept of involuntary sterilization sends a chill down my spine,” Dr. William Applegate, then the dean of the Wake Forest University School of Medicine, told the Journal in 2002. “I just think it’s morally wrong. The very concept of that is profoundly upsetting to me and to the leadership and the faculty of the school.”

One hopes that if the revelation about the school of medicine’s racist benefactor came out today, it would prompt the same level of moral indignation. We have to ask ourselves a serious question: Have we been re-conditioned to accept white supremacy in 2017?