Folks, I’m thrilled to announce that The New York Times has picked up a manuscript from the autobiography of a record-breaking ’70s civil rights leader.
“An Unlikely Man: An Unlikely Life,” by Mike Espy, is the riveting story of a gutsy activist and progressive Democrat who stood up to the Nixon administration’s war on civil rights. President Nixon’s broad criminal and regulatory actions played havoc with civil rights organizations and their backers.
Espy knew this would be a disaster. He knew that the Nixon government would regard him as a legitimate constitutional challenge to his presidency. He and his campaign had prepared for a successful legal defense for any actions by the Nixon White House – and they prepared for extensive surveillance by the FBI and other intelligence agencies.
President Nixon named Espy to the crucial position of deputy counsel to the attorney general, Robert Kennedy. Throughout the ’70s, Espy publicly rejected secret meetings that the Nixon White House planned to have with the Bureau in order to ascertain Espy’s strengths and weaknesses as a potential legal challenge to Nixon.
He knew that, and knew too that the White House plan violated the civil rights and anti-subversion laws. Espy was concerned that whatever he said would be leaked to the press. He feared that Nixon operatives would try to get their criminal hands on the letters and internal memos in order to paint Espy as a traitor to the FBI’s powerful agencies.
But he also knew that, at an elite level, Espy was clearly an asset for Nixon. Nixon wanted to get an association between the White House and the Justice Department. And that was possible if they conspired together. Espy understood all this. He knew that while he had been unable to avoid Nixon’s political pressure, he was able to hold Nixon to his legal obligations.
At the same time, Espy began working against the long march of the Nixon administration, making hay of the abuses the administration had committed to further its reactionary agenda. He was a direct challenge to the notion of the White House/Justice Department axis and thus the “Southern Strategy.” He was highly disruptive to Nixon. It was the only positive role he had during the Nixon presidency.
Espy arrived at the Justice Department in a part of the country that was so backwards that he had to become involved in the bloodletting that had begun in the ’60s when civil rights workers disappeared. He helped to save white civil rights activists from disappearing into “the state of Mississippi – you didn’t go there,” he tells us.