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Oral History of STEPHEN J. POLLAK
Sixth Interview-April 11, 2003
This interview is being conducted on behalf of the Oral History Project of the
Historical Society of the District of Columbia Circuit. The interviewee is Stephen J. Pollak, and
the interviewer is Katia Garrett. The interview took place at the Shea & Gardner law firm at
1800 Massachusetts Avenue, in the District of Columbia on Friday, April 11, 2003, at 10:00 a.m.
This is the sixth interview.
Ms. Garrett: Steve, we were chatting just before I turned the tape on about your reviewing of
the transcript of the last interview. Was there anything you wanted to add?
Mr. Pollak: Since we last met, I had a telephone call from Charlie Ferris. He was a main aide
to Majority Leader Mike Mansfield and played a significant role in the Senate’s
crafting of the Mansfield-Dirksen compromise which became the Voting Rights
Act of 1965. I participated with Charlie and others in that effort. Charlie, who
was calling to obtain some facts about those events now almost 40 years ago for a
speech he was giving, recounted a marvelous story which I would like to record
He said that after the Selma-Montgomery march and President Johnson’s
pressure on the Congress to pass a statute to assure that Blacks could register and
vote without discrimination, Majority Leader Mansfield learned that Attorney
General Katzenbach had been up to the Senate and met with the Republican
Minority Leader, Senator Everett Dirksen. Mansfield understood that Katzenbach
had reviewed with Dirksen the terms of the bill that President Johnson wanted the
Senate to pass. Mansfield was, according to Charlie and the press at the time, a
man of few words and a man of an iron will, and he was obviously miffed that the
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Democratic Attorney General had not met with him. He instructed Charlie to
prepare a workable piece of voting rights legislation one page long that would be
his bill, Senator Mansfield’s bill. Charlie took him seriously and left the meeting
without any idea of what he would do. It seemed to him impossible that he could
craft on one page an entire voting rights act, when the current bill or the bill that
had passed the House was 62 pages. Mansfield instructed him to have nothing to
do with the Department of Justice.
Charlie recounted that Burke Marshall, who had been at Justice as head of the
Civil Rights Division since 1961, had left the Department and was waiting at
Covington & Burling before joining IBM as its chief lawyer. He called Burke
and got together with Burke and Harold Greene and they worked up a bill that
they typed single spaced and crammed as much on a page as they could and also
changed or eliminated provisions. He said there were a lot of findings recounted
in the draft and they got rid of those. He then took that bill to Mansfield and he
also encouraged Katzenbach to come up and make his amends with Mansfield.
As Charlie told it, the confluence of a second Katzenbach visit and the draft that
Marshall, Greene and Ferris had worked on broke that log jam. I had not known
any of that history.
Ms. Garrett: You were involved in the drafting of the Voting Rights Act and sort of the
shepherding of it through the legislative process, is that right?
Mr. Pollak: My involvement came following the Selma-Montgomery march, which was at the
end of March in 1965. When I returned to Washington, perhaps in early April,
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the Attorney General asked me to represent the Administration in working with
the Senate on getting the voting rights bill to the floor. It was in that role that I
participated in the development of the Voting Rights Act. I participated in the
meetings with the staff of Senator Dirksen. There were three led by Neil
Kennedy and including Bernie Waters and Clyde Flynn. Those were the Dirksen
people and there were also Bill Welch of Senator Hart’s office, Charlie Ferris
representing Senator Mansfield and myself. Sometimes Senator Philip A. Hart sat
in on our meetings. We went through the draft bill, S. 1564, reported favorably
by 12 members of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary. Senators Eastland of
Mississippi, McClellan of Arkansas, and Ervin of North Carolina adopted
statements of two witnesses who labeled the bill unnecessary and invalid. As I
recounted in the oral history I did in 1969, the Dirksen staffers called upon the
small drafting group to review every section and subsection of the bill, one by
one. There came to be significant changes in the order of the sections. So, many
changes in the order of the provisions and some changes in substance were
hammered out, and I played the role of scribe. Again, as I have recounted
elsewhere, I had scissors and I had scotch tape. It was long before computers.
And I had the draft bill we began with. As the group negotiated through the bill, I
would scissors out the old provisions. I would scotch tape them onto yellow
paper in the order that they were being considered, give them the new section and
subsection numbers, give them the new editings right on the yellow pad. As
provisions from the old bill were not incorporated in the new bill, I left them in a
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pile underneath my chair. Then at the end of the negotiation session when we had
gone through a particular portion of the bill, I would pick up the leavings from the
floor and ask the assembled group whether a provision, which I would read out
loud, was intentionally meant to be omitted or whether it needed to be included in
order to make the procedures have cogency. Very often, all in the room agreed
that an omitted provision should be incorporated and we would either find the
place to incorporate it or leave it for our next meeting to determine how to
incorporate it. So, in the end, among the things that I did in scissoring up these
provisions was to assure that anything we didn’t include was intentionally
omitted. I came to believe that the Dirksen representatives were committed to
having an effective Voting Rights Act; that they really didn’t have a position that
it should be significantly different in substance from the bill approved by the 12
Senators on the Senate Judiciary Committee, except in some more limited ways,
one of which I can recount. But they did want the bill to be changed in its
appearance because it was important as a political matter for the Republican Party
to be able to say it had played a major role in the crafting of the Voting Rights
Act. It was in that series of meetings that the change in appearance was
Now, a substantive change that I recall was made and that was a major
matter of discussion at the very highest levels — certainly Attorney General
Katzenbach, certainly Senator Mansfield, certainly Senator Dirksen – involved
the poll tax. S. 1564 and the House bill (H.R. 6400) provided that no state shall
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deny any person the right to register or vote because of a failure to pay a poll tax.
Senator Dirksen’s people opposed that and the compromise was that the bill
would direct the Attorney General immediately to bring lawsuits to have the poll
tax struck down as violative of the Constitution wherever there was a poll tax.
There were poll taxes required by state law in Virginia, Mississippi, Texas and
Alabama. The bill, with that revised provision and other changes agreed to in the
working group, was then introduced by Senators Mansfield and Dirksen, adopted
by the Senate, concurred in by the House, and signed by Johnson on August 6,
1965. On the day after it was signed, the Justice Department was ready and filed
suit in Mississippi seeking a declaration that the poll tax was invalid under the
Constitution and an order enjoining its enforcement. Three days later, we filed
similar suits in Alabama, Virginia and Texas. There were other substantive
changes in the voting rights bill worked out by the group.
Ms. Garrett: And one of those cases made it up to the Supreme Court, didn’t it?
Mr. Pollak: In point of fact, that is not so. The cases that were brought by the Department of
Justice were presented before three-judge federal district courts. The suit against
Texas was styled United States v. State of Texas. I presented that case and tried it.
It was decided February 9, 1966, by a three-judge court in an opinion by Circuit
Judge Homer Thornberry. The Court held that requirement of a poll tax as a
precondition to voting was an unjustified restriction on one of the most basic
rights guaranteed by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. The
Court placed significant reliance on the finding of Congress stated in
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Section 10(a) of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and Congress’s declaration, based
on those findings that the constitutional right of citizens to vote is denied by the
requirement of payment of a poll tax. The opinion is reported at 252 F. Supp.
I was also responsible for presenting the Virginia and Alabama cases.
Someone else in the Civil Rights Division presented the Mississippi case. I do
not believe the Alabama, Virginia and Mississippi cases were ruled on. Before
any of those cases could be heard by the Supreme Court, a case brought
separately by the American Civil Liberties Union called Harper v. Virginia State
Board of Elections, 383 U.S. 663 (1966), was decided by the Supreme Court. The
Court held the poll tax unconstitutional. That then was the final denouement of
the poll tax. The Harper decision reached an opposite conclusion from an earlier
Supreme Court decision, Breedlove v. Settles [302 U.S. 277 (1937)], which
upheld the poll tax. I put major effort into the Texas case spending a large
amount of time as First Assistant in the Division in Texas developing the proof
for that case.
Ms. Garrett: How did you develop the proof for that case? Are there any interesting stories
that emerged from either the litigation of that or the Virginia or Alabama cases?
Mr. Pollak: There were a number of Civil Rights Division attorneys who worked with me on
these poll tax cases. Alexander Ross, Gerald Jones, David Norman, and others
helped on the Texas case. I retained Dagmar Hamilton as a special Justice
employee. She was an attorney whose husband had been a Washington attorney
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and had relocated to Austin, Texas, where he was a professor of law at the
University of Texas Law School. Dagmar helped find witnesses in the state of
Texas who could testify to the burdens imposed by the poll tax on the poor and
Blacks. We did many things that I thought were creative. There was no
legislative history kept at the time the Texas Legislature adopted the poll tax, so
we couldn’t go to the legislative history to show that the poll tax was adopted
with a discriminatory intent to preclude voting by Blacks, but we believed that
was the case. We determined to present to the Court as proof of the
discriminatory intent contemporaneous newspaper articles that quoted members
of the Legislature. We researched back in the archives of the post-Civil War
period when the poll tax was adopted by Texas and found news articles which,
sure enough, reflected the anti-Black intent of the members of the Legislature.
We got all of them sealed with big red wax seals attesting their authenticity so
that we could put them before the Court. We did and the Court accepted them as
proof at the trial.
We made an effort to present to the Court facts respecting poll tax
payments and racial information with respect to most of Texas’s 256 counties.
That was a tremendous task. It was our intention to present proof that the poll tax
denied equal protection of the laws to the Blacks. Our theory was that because of
state supported discrimination against Blacks – segregation and unequal funding
of education and other public facilities and other state-supported discrimination –
Blacks had lower incomes than whites and this condition made it more difficult
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for Blacks as a class than whites as a class to pay the poll tax and qualify to
register and vote. The state’s poll tax was a small dollar amount, $1.75. We
identified a woman in the Social Security Administration named Mollie
Orshansky who had developed the facts leading to the identification of the
“poverty line” for family income. I prepared Mollie to give a deposition in each
of the four cases. She testified to the barrier the poll tax imposed upon persons of
low income. The development of those lines of proof was interesting and
Ms. Garrett: The amount of $1 or $2 or $4.50 in today’s terms doesn’t sound like much
money, but at the time, the economic scale was somewhat different?
Mr. Pollak: Right. The question for any individual or minority individual was, “Do you want
to spend that money to cast a vote or for food or housing?”
There is a story that can be found in the deposition of Ms. Orshansky in
the Alabama case. The reason there were depositions was that these
constitutional cases were heard by three-judge courts, generally made up of two
appellate judges and one district court judge. The judges wanted the trial to be
presented to them on paper with depositions and documents and briefs and
proposed findings of fact. In the Alabama case which was defended by Governor
Wallace and the state, we, the Department of Justice, noticed the deposition of
Ms. Orshansky to take place in the United States Courthouse in Montgomery,
Alabama. We ascertained that Judge Frank M. Johnson, Jr., who was the
managing member of the three-judge court, along with appellate Judges Rives and
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Gewin, would be in the courthouse so that if there were disputes, we could take
them to the Judge. In any event, there were several lawyers or at least two
representing the state. One of them, named Kohn, represented Governor Wallace.
On cross-examination of Ms. Orshansky, this exchange occurred. First, Ms.
Orshansky was an unmarried woman of some years. She had gray, somewhat
thinning hair. In the course of his cross examination, Mr. Kohn asked her
whether she had ever dated, as he said, a “Nigra.” Just what his purpose was, I’m
not sure, but he may have been hoping to show that she either was prejudiced or
considered that Negroes were not sufficiently intelligent to have dates with. She
answered his question by saying, “No.” He then demanded, “And for what
reason?” Her answer, spoken softly, was, “I was never asked.”
Ms. Garrett: That’s brilliant.
Mr. Pollak: There were other lines of proof in these cases. We went around Texas hunting for
witnesses who could say, particularly minority witnesses, who could say that the
poll tax was a burden to their voting. We would not have embarked on the Mollie
Orshansky line of proof if we had found what we were looking for in witnesses
living in the State.
Waggoner Carr was the Attorney General of the state of Texas and he
presented the state’s case at the trial. I and my team got all of this extensive proof
ready to submit to the Court. The state wasn’t objecting to our proof; at least I
don’t recall that they tried to keep it out, except for the newspaper clippings
reporting the debates when the poll tax was adopted. The trial was held in District
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Judge Adrian Spears’ courtroom in Austin. I remember going into the men’s
room alone just before the Court convened and thinking to myself, “My, am I
really doing this? Is all of this really going to happen without some terrible
outcome?” Because I thought the proof was so extensive, I wondered how it
would all go in. My recollection is that it went in pretty readily. I draw a blank
on what Texas put in. The trial consumed half of that day. Then, we retired to
prepare our briefs. I have the briefs at home. We wrote them on long paper. Our
brief was more than 100 pages and we had a compendia of exhibits and findings
that filled five or six additional lengthy documents of 50 to 100 pages each. My
recollection is that the Court promptly rendered a decision. The Voting Rights
Act became law on August 6, 1965. The District Court decision came down in
February 1966. We filed the case, tried it, briefed it, and the Court decided it
unanimously in less than seven months.
While the Texas Court recognized the facts we presented and ruled against
the poll tax, it did not accept some of the significant legal conclusions we drew
from the facts. It found that the primary purpose of the 1902 amendment of the
Texas Constitution requiring payment of a poll tax was the desire to
disenfranchise Negroes and poor whites but held that this invidious purpose more
than 50 years ago was not alone sufficient for declaring the tax unconstitutional.
It recognized that the dual structure of Society in post-Civil War Texas resulted in
the denial of equal opportunities to Blacks. The Court held that this evidence did
not establish that the poll tax discriminates against Blacks in violation of the
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Fifteenth Amendment or the Equal Protection Clause. It said that in the last 20
years the record showed no overt use of the poll tax to deprive Blacks of the right
to vote and no instances of outright discrimination. Fortunately, noting that the
right to vote is one of the fundamental personal rights protected by the Due
Process Clause, the Court reviewed each of the suggested justifications for
conditioning that right on payment of a poll tax and found none sufficiently
compelling to sustain the tax. In reaching this conclusion, the Court noted that
Texas had abandoned the most reasonable means for collecting the tax and so
rejected funding of the government as a justification. It concluded that the tax
infringes on the concept of liberty protected by the Due Process Clause and
constituted an invalid charge on the exercise of “one or our most precious rights –
the right to vote.”
We went through the same drill in Alabama and Virginia. I remember
arguing before the three-judge panel in Alabama, and recall my father and my
secretary being there. Having a date to argue the Virginia case the following day
in Richmond, I chartered a plane to take us from Montgomery to Richmond in
time to present the next case. That’s the only time I ever did that.
Ms. Garrett: So your father had come in from Chicago?
Mr. Pollak: Right.
Ms. Garrett: How wonderful.
Mr. Pollak: Yes.
Ms. Garrett: Was this the only argument that he saw of yours?
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Mr. Pollak: I think that he may have come down when I had Supreme Court arguments in the
SG’s Office, or one of them. I’m sure he did. But this was the only Civil Rights
Division case that he attended. And he must have attended my arguments in
Montgomery, Alabama and in Richmond, in both of those cases. That’s a nice
memory for me.
Ms. Garrett: He must have been very proud.
Mr. Pollak: Well, I’m sure he was. That is what fathers do.
Ms. Garrett: True enough. Coming back to Washington on the Voting Rights Act of ‘65, what
interaction if any did you have with the broader civil rights community
surrounding the passage of the Act and its implementation?
Mr. Pollak: My recollection is pretty dim. I had interactions with Clarence Mitchell who was
the NAACP’s representative in Washington and was then or soon thereafter
referred to as the 101st
Senator. Clarence was a Baltimore person, came from a
significant and well-respected Baltimore family. I had great regard for him as a
person and for his integrity, for his knowledge and for the constructive
contribution he made to the development of the civil rights legislation. His
lawyer on these matters was Joe Rauh and I may have had some contact with the
two of them respecting the Voting Rights Act. But I don’t recall that I had
contact with leaders of other civil rights organizations. I think those contacts fell
more to the Attorney General or to John Doar who was the Assistant Attorney
General in charge of the Division. I recall myself working more away from
public contacts. I recall having contacts with some of the Senators, but not a large
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number. But certainly Senator Hart of Michigan. Some with Senator Mansfield,
the Majority Leader.
Ms. Garrett: You came to the Civil Rights Division after leaving OEO in March of ‘65. Is it
correct that the Administration’s civil rights activities were being consolidated in
the Department of Justice around that time?
Mr. Pollak: There was a committee under the chairmanship of Vice President Humphrey that
was concerned with civil rights. Its staff leader was David Filvaroff. Wiley
Branton, who had been a significant civil rights leader in Arkansas and had played
a significant role in civil rights advances, had come to Washington and was
working with that committee. In addition, there was the Civil Rights
Commission, which was a statutory body created by the 1957 Civil Rights Act. It
was a fact-finding body. Reverend Theodore Hesburgh, President of Notre Dame,
was a member of the Commission, John A. Hannah, President of Michigan State
University, was chairman, and it was a player. Those were the three
governmental agencies, using the term loosely, that were concerned generally
with civil rights. It was the view of the Attorney General, John Doar, and myself
that the Civil Rights Division, because of its litigation experience in the South,
was in the best position to develop for the Administration and for the President,
the facts and to recommend policy positions and legislative positions on civil
rights. We thought — and here I refer to myself and the others I’ve named — that
the Humphrey Committee was less well-informed, not being out in the field —
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although not less well motivated — and in addition was more open to the pressures
of the civil rights community.
So, to the extent the Attorney General and the Division had any say in the
matter, we were desirous that the President look to the Civil Rights Division for
his counsel respecting civil rights positions. And that is the way it developed.
Ultimately, Wiley Branton became a Special Assistant to the Attorney General,
and the Humphrey committee withered away. The Civil Rights Commission
continued to hold hearings, developing significant facts on civil rights issues and
those factual records became the text for recommendations of needed legislation
and for pressuring federal departments and agencies to act more positively on
It was the subject of much debate during the ‘60s and often criticism of the
Kennedy and Johnson Administrations that the government, particularly the
Department of Justice, was not sufficiently responsive to the concerns of the civil
rights community. The view of those of us in the Division was that the job of the
civil rights community was to press for as far-reaching action by the government
as it could achieve and the job of the government was to make judgments in the
interests of the good of the nation. To do that, we had to assess each issue on the
facts and the merits. We respected the members of the civil rights community but
we were not ready to act only at their bidding. I think that’s the right posture for
the government to take in that situation. My view is that the Kennedy and
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Johnson Administrations were committed to achieving objectives that were key to
ending discrimination on account of race.
Later, in 1968 when I was Assistant Attorney General and Ramsey Clark
was Attorney General, the women’s movement began to contend for an
adjustment in commitment of the resources of the Department of Justice to apply
more resources to the elimination of discrimination on account of gender. That
collided with our priorities on elimination of discrimination on account of race. I
recall a meeting that the Attorney General and I had with all of the leaders of the
women’s movement in the Attorney General’s large office. My recollection is
that the leaders of all of the women’s organizations were there. I recall
Congresswoman Bella Abzug with a big hat, which was her trademark, Jane Hart,
Senator Hart’s wife, Dorothy Height, President of the National Council of Negro
Women, Betty Friedan and perhaps eight others were there.
Ms. Garrett: Gloria Steinem.
Mr. Pollak: Gloria Steinem was there. They were all there.
Ms. Garrett: How did that meeting go?
Mr. Pollak: I don’t think any transcript was taken. One of the women leaders said to Attorney
General Clark, “Mr. Attorney General, we believe discrimination against women”
– this was in 1968, soon after Dr. King had been slain. It was after the riots in the
urban areas, unrest among Blacks. The leader of the group said, “Mr. Attorney
General, we believe the number one problem in civil rights is discrimination on
account of gender.” I think it’s fair to say that the Attorney General and I were
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not of that view. We believed that the number one problem was discrimination on
account of race. But it was a consciousness-raising meeting for me and an
important one. At that time, the Civil Rights Division had probably between 80
and 90 attorneys, so we didn’t have a lot of person-power to address civil rights
problems across the United States. Race and gender discrimination being, in
those days, the major areas as to which the Department had statutory jurisdiction.
Ms. Garrett: Interesting. And that was after you became the AAG?
Mr. Pollak: Right. By then I had become the Assistant Attorney General.
Ms. Garrett: Let’s back up for a second to your first term there when John Doar was the
Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights. What was it like working for John
Doar? You’re smiling.
Mr. Pollak: Yes, well, John was a revered leader in the Division. He was in total control of
the Division. Nobody went anywhere or did anything without John’s approval.
He had attorneys out in the South — all over the South — and there was a great
deal of travel out of town by Civil Rights Division attorneys. The focus of the
division in 1965 and ‘66 was on Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, with lesser
focus on the other states of the Old South and still lesser focus on areas outside
the South, probably very little focus. When I joined the Division, the Division
had under 50 attorneys, so there wasn’t much margin for law enforcement broadly
across too many states. John went south himself all the time. He was often out of
town and it fell to me to manage the Division from Washington. He managed it
either through me and others or directly by telephone with care and attention
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wherever he was, even though those were days before cell phones. The most
difficult cases, criminal and civil, he supervised and prepared and tried them as
Assistant Attorney General. I thought he was an inspiring leader. Everyone else
who was in the division and the Department thought the same thing, at least as far
as I knew then or now.
One of his great achievements was not a particular trial, but the prompt
and virtually flawless implementation of the Voting Rights Act. The Voting
Rights Act brought about a sea change in the governing of the electoral processes,
of registration and voting. Setting and implementing the qualifications and
procedures for registration and voting had always been the prerogative of the
states. The Voting Rights Act gave the authority to the United States in the States
and counties covered by the statute. The statute set qualifications for registration
and voting. It provided that the Attorney General could send in what were called
“examiners” to register persons in states and counties where less than 50% of the
voting age population had voted in the last presidential election (reflecting that
state and local authorities had been discriminating); that the Attorney General or
the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia had to approve any changes in
practices or procedures for voting before they could go into effect. All literacy
tests or other tests for registration were proscribed in those states and counties.
All of those new statutory provisions had to be communicated to the county
officials who managed registration and voting in all the geographical areas
covered by the statute. Then, if they wouldn’t comply with the new law, action
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had to be taken to put in examiners or, when elections came, actions had to be
taken to have “observers,” poll watchers, on the scene. Where votes were denied,
lawsuits had to be brought so that the rights of minorities were vindicated. On the
day or the day after the Voting Rights Act was signed, Attorney General
Katzenbach sent an explanatory letter, the division had prepared, to the
responsible official in every county covered by the new statute. Each probate
judge in Alabama, the local authority responsible for voting and registration in
every covered county, got one. Over 500 such letters were sent, maybe more.
They told the local officials what the law provided, told them if they obeyed the
law they would not have any federal personnel come in to their jurisdiction, but if
they didn’t, they would immediately have federal personnel there. The examiners
and observers were personnel of the Civil Service Commission. In advance of the
statute becoming law, under John’s direction, we worked with John Macy who
was the head of the Civil Service Commission. We worked with Wilson
Matthews of the Commission to set up all of the procedures for putting in
examiners, what they would do, and what the rules would be. We had all of that
ready to go on the day the Voting Rights Act was signed. The right findings were
written up and Attorney General Katzenbach certified nine counties for
examiners. In the week that followed, examiners were put into perhaps 10 to 15
additional counties. But it was always selective, based upon the facts.
Justification memoranda were written to the Attorney General to establish that
each examiner appointment recommended by the Division was warranted.
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One of John’s fundamental principles was that the federal government
would act to send in federal examiners only where the state and local authorities
were unwilling to apply the law fairly and without discrimination. His theory was
that the federal government would oust the local authorities of their
responsibilities only where they were unwilling to comply with the law because in
the long run, his view was, the local authorities would have to be relied on to do
the job. Where local authorities were willing to obey the law, examiners were not
assigned. I think that was a major success of the Voting Rights Act. There was
no federal occupation of these responsibilities except where the state pressed
forward with discrimination. Three months after the statute passed, the Civil
Rights Commission published a study – “The Voting Rights Act . . . the First
Months” – that, I recall, criticized Attorney General Katzenbach for not assigning
examiners more broadly across the South. I always thought the report was
mistaken. The results of the policy we followed in enforcing the Voting Rights
Act proved not only the success of the legislation, but the success of our policy of
selective assignments. When the Voting Rights Act was passed, we had a
notebook, indeed, I’ve got a copy in my library, that collected the facts on
registration of Blacks and whites in each of the covered areas. In Mississippi, six
percent of the Blacks were registered in 1965. We kept the statistics up to date
every week or so and within a short period of time, Mississippi was up over
50 percent Black registration. Local authorities were doing the registration in the
large majority of counties. I recall it was John’s view that most local authorities
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were committed to applying the law: If you told them what the law was, they
would comply with it once the pressures of state government to discriminate were
John was inspiring in all respects and an enjoyable colleague to work with.
Much as he had a hand in everything that was going on, he gave his colleagues
full authority to do their work. His standards were very high and everyone tried
to meet them.
Ms. Garrett: You mentioned that an award was created carrying his name.
Mr. Pollak: Yes.
Ms. Garrett: Tell me a little bit about that.
Mr. Pollak: During the Clinton years, on the 35th or 40th anniversary of the Division, there was
a ceremony announcing that the Attorney General had determined that the highest
award for performance by a division attorney would be named the John Doar
Award. That was universally acclaimed. I did not serve in the Civil Rights
Division while it was headed by Burke Marshall, but in acclaiming John’s
performance as Assistant Attorney General, I would add that John thought that the
leadership of Burke Marshall through the period 1961-‘65 was outstanding. He
revered Burke and looked to Burke during his tenure as Assistant Attorney
General for advice and counsel. I, too, hold Burke Marshall’s leadership of the
government on civil rights in the highest regard. I consider that his position on
the restraint that the federal government should show in approaching civil rights
law enforcement, founded on fundamental principles of federalism, to have been
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deeply influential throughout the 1960s and pivotal to the restoration of order in
the desegregating South. I agreed with his views, which were subject to a lot of
criticism. During the period when he was Assistant Attorney General, the civil
rights organizations were having sit-ins and other significant activities in the
South which led to attacks on individuals and civil rights organizations. Many
people thought that the federal government should have taken over the police
function in communities where these attacks were occurring. It was the view of
Burke and John Doar in those days that the federal government could not and
should not do so. I think that was the correct view, except where compliance with
the orders of a federal court was at issue as in the case of the admission of James
Meredith to the University of Mississippi or the Selma-Montgomery march where
the Alabama guard was federalized. There are occasions in law enforcement
where supervening federal authority is proper. But in general, and this has
interesting parallels to problems we are now facing in Iraq, if we are going to
have a civil society that is able to navigate on its own, Uncle Sam can’t step in on
the way and take it all over.
Ms. Garrett: We’ve seen problems with that in Afghanistan recently. Hopefully we are not due
for a repeat of that in Iraq. These interviews are taking place against a fairly
turbulent global backdrop but they are about a much more turbulent domestic
time, I think it’s fair to say.
Mr. Pollak: John Doar was also a major player in advising the President and Department of
Defense with respect to urban riots and the handling of those situations.
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Ms. Garrett: Did you have any involvement with the Administration’s role in the developing
policy or determining a course of action with respect to any of these riots during
your first stint in the Civil Rights Division?
Mr. Pollak: The riots in the Watts section of Los Angeles occurred, I recall, in that 1965-66
period. I did not have a role in Watts. I don’t recall a particular role with respect
to urban unrest. I had a role when I went to the White House as the President’s
Advisor on the National Capital Area. I was there from February 1967 through
probably October of 1967. The summer of 1967 was the so-called “hot summer,”
meaning that there were concerns about unrest in Washington and elsewhere. The
President charged me with responsibility for keeping Washington cool in the
summer and having programs for young people. I worked with Deputy Secretary
Vance and General Counsel Paul Warnke of the Department of Defense and we
got buses and programs for young people. I hired Bruce Terris, who had been in
the SG’s office with me and was active in city affairs, to play a major role in
working to keep the city cool. I carried those learnings with me back to the
Department when we faced the riots following the slaying of Dr. King in
Ms. Garrett: I’d like to ask you about your time as the Advisor to the President for National
Capital Affairs, but I want to make sure that you have finished up with anything
you wanted to highlight for your first stint in the Civil Rights Division from 1965
to early 1967. Was there anything you wanted to add about that time?
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Mr. Pollak: I was impressed with the caliber of the people working in the division, from John
Doar down. I would record for history that John who joined the Division as First
Assistant to Harold Tyler at the end of the Eisenhower Administration, had ties,
of perhaps six years standing, with leaders in the division in whom he had great
confidence, particularly D. Robert Owen who was John’s right hand person and a
leader in the division; David L. Norman, who was blind and was a major leader in
the division and a major thinker; and St. John “Slim” Barrett, who was the Second
Assistant when I joined the Division. John relied heavily on those three. He had
great regard for Harold Greene who was head of the Appeals and Research
Section. I don’t think John ever felt as at home with Harold, not to say that he
didn’t have equal respect for him. The other three men were on the fact
development side of law enforcement and Harold was on the law side, the legal
argument side. John felt more at home with the facts. There were significant
numbers of others who were outstanding and John played them all like the notes
on an instrument. He knew where their strengths were and how to use them.
In the fall of 1966, President Johnson set up a cabinet level committee or
task force to develop his human resources or human relations legislative program
for the new Congress which would be seated in January 1967. Ramsey Clark,
then Attorney General, was the head of it. Ramsey asked me to be the working
head. Every cabinet secretary or agency that had a relationship to human relations
named a working member. We reviewed all possible legislative initiatives that
the President might propose. I devoted a lot of time and effort to that activity and
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had some paralegal assistance. Primarily the committee work fell to me to do. I
developed and Ramsey then reviewed and approved notebooks of
recommendations. In the end I had a single lead notebook of recommendations in
the field of housing, civil rights, education, and other human relations areas. I had
underlying notebooks that had large amounts of materials for each
recommendation that had come out of the departments. I mention this both
because it was a major undertaking, but also it had a major effect on my life. It
fell to me to present the materials to the President’s Special Assistant for
Domestic Policy, Joseph Califano, and the Counsel to the President, Harry
McPherson. I did so, and my guess is that the work product was considered by
them to be excellent. So when the President’s Advisor for National Capital
Affairs, Charlie Horsky, was ready to return to his law practice at Covington &
Burling, Califano and McPherson settled on me to succeed him. They knew me
because of that Task Force report.
Ms. Garrett: What was your reaction to being tapped for that position? Was it something that
you were wanting to do?
Mr. Pollak: I endeavored not to do it, and consulted Ramsey who was close to the President
and Barefoot Sanders who had been the Acting Deputy Attorney General under
Ramsey, and then had gone to the White House to head up the congressional
relations office. I asked them to try to get me out of that invitation to come to the
White House. I wanted to keep doing what I was doing in civil rights. I recall
Ramsey and Barefoot, who were perfectly ready to support me in what I wanted,
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saying, “Well, if the President ends up asking you, you don’t have any choice.”
So, ultimately that’s the way it worked out. I recall thinking that the District of
Columbia job was too narrow a portfolio compared to what I was doing in the
Civil Rights Division. Califano and McPherson, with whom I dealt – and I
considered their views essentially the same – then agreed that the President would
ask me to be his Advisor on the National Capital Area and also his Special
Assistant responsible for relations with HUD. I knew something about housing.
So, there came a day when I was asked to come over to the White House and the
President met with me and said, “I want you to come take responsibility for the
District of Columbia and you will also have responsibility for HUD.”
So, I moved to the White House. I had a rewarding time there. I wasn’t
sorry, although I didn’t want to go. It is a fact though, that I never had any
responsibility for HUD, so that was all either a fake or window dressing.
Secretary Weaver related to the President through Califano and I’m sure he was
damned if he was going to relate to the President through me. And I’m sure
Califano didn’t want it either, so it never came to pass. I had plenty of
responsibility for concerns of the National Capital Area. My most major
responsibility was that the President had presented to the prior Congress a full
home rule bill for the District of Columbia and Horsky had worked for its
passage. It had failed to pass. My guess is that the President was ready for
Horsky to go because the bill had failed. The President wasn’t one to accept
failure of something he put his heart into. So, when I got there, the President,
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with the advice of the Bureau of the Budget, was taking a different tack. That was
to present to the Congress a reorganization plan, because it was constitutional
then, under a statute that provided that a plan of reorganization would become law
if neither House vetoed it. A one-house veto would bar the plan. The plan was to
change the District of Columbia government from its then weak, threecommissioner form to an appointed mayor/commissioner and an appointed city
The President said to me, probably when he offered me the job, “I want
you to work on that as a first priority matter. I want you to get the plan fully
developed,” because it was still somewhat nascent. “I want to know whether the
Congress will accept it and if the Congress will accept it, I’ll send it up and then I
want you to support it and get it approved.” I worked greatly on that, but on
many other things as well. The major creator of the plan was an expert in public
administration who was an Assistant Director of the Bureau of the Budget named
Harold Seidman. Harold died within the last year at a very elderly age. He was
brilliant about public administration issues and he and the Bureau of the Budget
staff drafted an outstanding plan to reorganize the District Government. It was
the President’s feeling that if the government was reorganized to the form of a
mayor and a city council who were appointed by the President, it would be very
easy then to propose legislation to make these offices elective. Of course, the
President, as he was so often on domestic matters and domestic legislative
matters, was 100 percent correct. That’s what happened.
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I had a major legislative portfolio for the President in that Congress. Even
though this was during the height of the agony of the Vietnamese War, the
President was vitally interested in this reorganization and devoted himself to it. I
remember one time that I met with him, I’m sure with his legislative liaisons, who
were Barefoot Sanders and Mike Manitos, Henry Hall Wilson and Larry O’Brien,
and a coterie of people that related to the House and the Senate for him. He said I
think primarily to me, “I’m not going to send this plan to the Congress unless I
know that it’s going to be approved, so I want you to go up there and meet with
every Congressman” — maybe he also said every Senator, but I remember every
Congressman – “and find out whether they’ll support it.” Well, that was kind of
an impossible order since there were so many, 435. I made it my business to go
and see all of the people who had any responsibilities related to the District of
Columbia, appropriations people, District committee people and a broad range of
people. The other legislative experience I had had before that was the Voting
Rights Act. By that time the plan had been developed, I had prepared good
talking papers. I found that Republicans and Democrats alike were willing to deal
with the issue on the merits. I had a good product to sell and they bought it.
I remember one amusing event. I tried and tried and tried to see John
McMillan, who was a senior congressman from Virginia, Chair of the House
District Committee, and a power in the House. He never would see me. He
wouldn’t give me an audience. He never returned my calls.
Ms. Garrett: Why not? Do you know why that was?
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Mr. Pollak: I think that he wasn’t anxious to do anything that the President wanted and he
wouldn’t see me. It was clear why I wanted to see him. I wanted to talk to him
about this plan. I don’t know whether the plan had been set up by then, maybe it
had been, but in any event, the plan was not sent to the District Committee
because it was a reorganization plan. It was sent to the Government Operations
Committee, and McMillan certainly didn’t like that. Well, there developed a
characteristically House seniority brouhaha because McMillan complained that
the President had not talked to him, that he hadn’t been communicated with. But
I had all the records of my repeated efforts to see him and we spread those out and
it just silenced him predictably. That was rewarding.
I dealt with a whole cast of characters that related to these District matters
who were just almost out of “Guys and Dolls.” Some were for, some against. In
any event, when things moved along, the President invited all the interested
people to the White House and talked to them about the plan. He then called to
the White House all of the legislative liaisons of all the departments and said to
them, “I want you to fan out with all of the people on the Hill and support this
plan.” It was a characteristic Johnson effort, amazing in light of all of the things
that were on his plate. They did and it ultimately came to a vote in the House, and
it passed. I remember John Erlenborn of Illinois, a Republican, was good on the
bill and Frelinghuysen, a Republican of New Jersey, was good on the bill.
Democrats, many Democrats were good. And it passed and we didn’t even need
to bring it to a vote in the Senate. With the House vote, it was accepted in the
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Senate and by late summer I was involved in trying to identify people to be
named to the City Council. I did that working with John Macy, head of the Civil
Service Commission. I give the President credit for identifying and selecting
Walter Washington as the Mayor. I would like to say I pushed him to name a
minority to be Mayor of the District of Columbia, which had a majority minority
population, but it was his doing, not mine. I was not involved in proposing
candidates for Mayor. I searched all over the District, which I knew pretty well,
for candidates for the City Council. I would give the President memoranda which
would name seven or nine — whatever number there were to be — individuals as
candidates, and would give thumb nail sketches as to their ties to the community
and their characteristics, woman, minority, region of the city in which he or she
lived, and other variables. Those memoranda, and of course, all of the materials,
are in the Johnson Library. The President was merits oriented. He wanted a good
There’s a somewhat famous story about how John Hechinger came to be
selected as the first chairperson of the City Council. The President was going to
name Max Kampelman, who was very able and certainly deserving, but at about
the moment that he wanted to have the name so he could make the announcement,
there came some publicity that raised questions about Max’s involvement with
some machinery deal for India. I don’t think it reflected adversely ultimately on
him. He has had an illustrious career since. But at that moment, there was sort of
a bubbling up of that story and the President determined, as he often did, that he
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wasn’t prepared to go with Max. But he wanted to name the people the
following day. One of the names on the list was John Hechinger, head of the
hardware store chain and long-time District resident and leader. Califano said to
me that I should go get with Hechinger and ask him if he would accept the
appointment. That was about 7:00 or 7:30 at night. If you work in the White
House, there’s no time of the day when you’re not on call. I was at the office, so I
tried to reach Hechinger and he was at the opera with his wife. At about the time
the opera was getting out, I drove over to the Hechinger’s house and met them
when they returned from the opera. I said, “The President would like you to be
the Chair of the City Council. Are you willing to do it if he asks you?”
Hechinger and his wife considered it. I’m sure John has recounted this publicly.
I can’t recall whether they took it under advisement overnight or told me then, but
at least by the next morning he said he would do it and the President announced
the Mayor and the City Council that day. That was a fascinating experience.
What I had learned in this job was that the government of the District of
Columbia was weak. I believed that it was meant to be weak so that the power of
running the city could reside with the House District Committee where southern
congressmen were dominant. There were many players in governance of the
District, each of which had a slice of power. Because of that, the government was
weak. There were the three Commissioners, one of whom was the general in
charge of the Corps of Engineers of the U.S. Army, the so-called Engineer
Commissioner, and two Commissioners appointed by the President. Then there
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was the District Committee of the House, the District Committee of the Senate,
the District Appropriations Subcommittee of the House, the District
Appropriations Subcommittee of the Senate and then there was an Assistant in the
White House. My feeling was that because of the many persons and entities that
had power, the government was exceedingly weak. So when the reorganization
plan was approved, I urged the President to put my job out of existence, to rely on
the Mayor, and to try to aggrandize power in the Mayor and the City Council.
The President either took my advice or made his own decision. In any event, he
put my job out of existence and on the day that the White House was holding a
reception in honor of the newly named Mayor, City Council and Deputy Mayor, I
was going through the receiving line with my wife to greet the President, Mrs.
Johnson, Mayor Walter Washington and members of the City Council. I got to
the President and he took me aside right there in the East Room or wherever it
was and he congratulated me on the job I had done and said, “I’m going to name
you the head of the Civil Rights Division.” That was the first I knew of it.
Ms. Garrett: What was your reaction to that?
Mr. Pollak: Well, I have a photo that shows my wife and me. Of course, we looked happy
Ms. Garrett: I have a couple of other questions about National Capital Affairs and then we
might want to wrap up for this session.
Mr. Pollak: I did a lot of other things as Advisor for National Capital Affairs, but that was the
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Ms. Garrett: Well, are there any other things that you want to mention?
Mr. Pollak: There were other legislative initiatives. I had a tally list and kept track of them
and dealt with them. We were creating and funding the new Federal City College
and Washington Technical Institute, which were ultimately combined into the
University of the District of Columbia years later. I spent time dealing with that.
There was a Pennsylvania Avenue Development Commission, and I was
endeavoring to assist it in shaping up Pennsylvania Avenue. There were any
number of significant legislative matters. There were administrative issues.
There was a large tract of land at the northeast gateway to the city which I
believe had been a reform school for boys that was coming available. The
question was what kind of plan for redevelopment would there be. I had been a
student of housing and redevelopment and had been active in the District of
Columbia through the Washington Planning and Housing Association which I had
chaired. I may even have chaired it just before I moved to the White House. I
was away for a weekend when the redevelopment issue came up. Califano’s
office in particular one of his major assistants, Larry Levinson, had had to deal
with it over the weekend. I had been developing support for having a balanced
community there of middle income housing and public housing which was clearly
the way to go. I came back and found that Levinson had given at least
preliminary approval to a plan for placing public housing only on the area, which
would have been a mistake in my judgment. I took hold of that and got it back on
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track, which was just one of many kinds of things that I was responsible for
One of the other things that came up during my time was the reservation
of the land that is between 34th Street and Connecticut Avenue that is now
occupied by embassies and the University of the District of Columbia. It had
been the site of the Bureau of Standards which moved to Maryland. I shepherded
that plan. I dealt a lot with GSA and with the District Government and as I say
had spent a major amount of activity dealing with the hot summer. The President
always talked about his Assistant as the “Mayor” of the city and, because of the
weakness of the government form, not in the weakness of the people who were
running the District, the White House had a great deal of real power over the
District. I remember we gathered together a large group of governmental officials
who were to deal with the hot summer of 1967. We used to meet every week or
so in the Indian Treaty Room in the old Executive Office Building and coordinate
them to get some of the activities and jobs done. The city was calm that summer,
a credit to the city and to Bruce Terris and others who worked to make it so.
The White House was a good place work but you worked awfully hard. I
went to work early and worked late. I had a wonderful office on the first floor of
the Executive Office Building in the southeast corner. It was the office of the
Secretary of War in the Lincoln Administration.
Ms. Garrett: How historical. What a wonderful spot.
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Mr. Pollak: It was gorgeous. It opened on a secretarial space and then the next office to the
north was Betty Furness’. She was the President’s Assistant for Consumer
Affairs. She had advertised GE refrigerators on the television. Judge Gesell’s
daughter, who had worked as a paralegal in the Civil Rights Division, worked
with me as a Special Assistant, Patsy, and I brought my secretary from Justice. I
communicated with the President primarily in his “night reading.”
Ms. Garrett: What do you mean?
Mr. Pollak: I could do my job with making up my own mind and keeping the President
informed. Whenever I had a significant decision that needed to be made, I wrote
him a memorandum identifying the issue and the relevant considerations and
presenting a box that he could check yes or no, or I need more information. I
would put the memo in his night reading and in the morning I would have an
answer. I admired his energy and commitment because he was responsible for the
whole government and he had Vietnam going on all the time I was in the job. I
always heard from him the very next morning.
Ms. Garrett: Impressive.
Mr. Pollak: Very impressive.
Ms. Garrett: You had mentioned to me at another point a headline that appeared when you
were named as the Advisor to the President for National Capital Affairs. Can you
Mr. Pollak: There was a headline saying, “Stephen Who?”
Ms. Garrett: That was it.
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Mr. Pollak: Right. I have the article at home. I was not a public figure when named and I
don’t suppose I was a public figure when I finished. I think I did a good job and I
think the Post editorialized favorably when I left the job. In any event, I was very
fortunate in being able to return to the Civil Rights Division.
Ms. Garrett: Did you give any value then or subsequently to seeking a position in the District
Mr. Pollak: The President asked me if I wanted to be the Deputy Mayor, or maybe Califano
said he wanted to propose me as the Deputy Mayor. I urged him not to because I
didn’t want to get in the same position that I had gotten into in respect to the
White House job in the first place. I think the suggestion was made that I could
be the Chair of the City Council, but I didn’t want any of those positions. Not
that I didn’t think they were challenging, but I thought that my place was in the
Civil Rights Division and that was what I was best qualified for. So I was never a
self-seeker for positions growing out of the White House job. Ramsey Clark must
have talked to me about the Civil Rights Division position. John Doar was
preparing to try the case of those police officials of Neshoba County, Mississippi,
charged with slaying three civil rights workers in 1964. He was going to try it in
the fall of ‘67. He had expressed his desire to leave the Division as soon as that
trial was over. Ramsey was looking for a successor and that’s how my
appointment by Johnson came about. I returned to the Department of Justice. I
assisted Walter Washington in getting him informed to become the Mayor and
worked actively to help him transition into the position. There was also help
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provided to him by Ben Gilbert who was an editor of the Washington Post and a
friend of Walter’s and Bennetta’s, Walter’s wife. Bennetta was a major figure in
her own right and had been head of the Job Corps at OEO. Walter was an
excellent selection for the first Mayor.
I returned to Justice in October 1967 as a Special Assistant to Attorney
General Clark. John Doar was in Mississippi. I pretty much ran the Division
until John’s trial was completed successfully. My recollection is that he did not
pick up the work of the Division after the trial ended, but moved to become the
President of the Bedford-Stuyvesant Corporation, an effort sponsored by Robert
Kennedy to try to do something about the unfortunate conditions for minority
youth, including the economy, in Bedford-Stuyvesant, a part of New York City.
Ms. Garrett: Okay, we’ve been going about two hours and I think we’ll wrap this up for today.
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