|Oregon State Bar Bulletin JANUARY 2007|
In the story of the civil rights movement in the South, Roy Haber is a hero. But the Eugene lawyer didn’t start out as the "fearless loner" described in Worse Than Slavery, historian David Oshinsky’s account of Parchman Farm, the notorious segregated prison, which Haber got integrated while working in Mississippi in the early 1970s.
In 1970, Haber was recruited with a number of lawyers to "bring some law and order to the South."
"I was going to be picked up someplace on a highway in Jackson," he recalls. "I remember being in absolute, abject terror: a little Jewish kid from New York sitting by himself on the side of a highway in Mississippi after (some of the same) people I was going down there to provide legal services to had been murdered."
Haber’s work in Mississippi is only one aspect of a fascinating career.
He’s handled high-powered divorces. He’s had mystical experiences with a Sioux medicine man, and was asked to negotiate with Indian activists Dennis Banks and Russell Means at Wounded Knee. He’s represented the Bagwan Shree Rajneesh, as well as members of a South American religion that use a tea brewed from a psychoactive plant grown in the Amazon as their sacrament.
As director of Prisoner Legal Services of Oregon, a job that brought him to Oregon in 1978, Haber won what the Statesman-Journal called a "stunning" victory in the prison overcrowding case, Capps v. Atiyeh.
For the last 17 years, he and his co-counsel have spent millions suing Hanford contractors for allegedly affecting the health of civilians who lived downwind from the former nuclear weapons installation. (Last year, a federal jury found that DuPont and General Electric were responsible for causing thyroid cancer in two bellwether plaintiffs.)
Along the way, he’s been fired a couple of times, including by the board of Prisoner Legal Services. ("I had a terrible relationship with the board," Haber acknowledges.)
But of all of these experiences, says Haber, "the major change in my life was when I went up to the Mississippi State Prison — Parchman Farm — to meet with (prisoner) Matthew Winter."
Parchman Farm was no ordinary prison.
"During the Cold War years," wrote Worse Than Slavery reviewer Robert Goldman, "an article of faith that distinguished the West from the ‘Evil Empire’ of Soviet Communism was the latter’s Siberian gulag, a vast network of prison camps where inmates faced unspeakable brutality and horrors from both nature and man. … (But) ...the U.S. did indeed have its own gulag, and it went by the name of Mississippi."
When Haber arrived in 1970, Parchman Farm was a 21,000-acre, racially segregated cotton plantation, where prisoners were subject to being beaten with a leather strap if they did not pick their quota of cotton.
Each of the farm’s black camps was overseen by a white sergeant and — below him — black trustees, all of whom had been convicted of murder and who were allowed to carry guns.
"Parchman Farm was the last vestige of state-sponsored slavery," says Haber. "In fact, the prisoners were not treated as well as slaves, because slave owners had an economic interest in protecting their slaves. All of the prisoners had knives. Think of animals of different species caged up and killing each other. It was a very, very crazy, sick place."
After gaining the trust of black inmates by winning some smaller cases, in 1971 Haber was able to convince four of them — including Winter and Nazareth Gates — to challenge their confinement on constitutional grounds. In an unprecedented move, the U.S. Department of Justice, intervened on behalf of Haber and the prisoners. (Haber later was appointed deputy chief of the department’s civil rights division.)
In October 1972, a Southern judge, William Keady, in Gates v. Collier, found for the plaintiffs, calling Parchman Farm an affront to "modern standards of decency" and its living quarters "unfit for human habitation."
Joe Littlepage, a former Parchman prisoner who later moved to Oregon, told a newspaper that "He (Haber) did it all. I never saw anyone with that much energy, who was that dynamic. It was like the single-handed Western hero who goes into a town and cleans it up."
Following Gates, Haber worked his way westward, doing prisoners’ rights work in Oregon even after he parted ways with Prisoner Legal Services.
In 2005, he went back to Mississippi for the first time in a quarter century, this time accompanied by his two young-adult sons.
"What I learned is it’s pretty much integrated," says Haber, who heard Jackson’s police chief and mayor — both black men — speak at the dedication of the site of the office that he and his civil rights colleagues shared. "There have been enormous changes down there, in terms of power politics and criminal justice, although there’s still enormous economic disparity."
Then he and his sons drove out to the prison. "I was introduced to the warden," says Haber. "He’s black. On his desk was Worse Than Slavery. He said, ‘You are the reason I’m sitting here.’ It brought tears to my eyes."
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Janine Robben is a Portland attorney and freelance writer.
© 2007 Janine Robben