On Election Day 2008, Maruse Heath, the leader of Philadelphia’s New Black Panther Party, stood in front of a neighborhood polling place, dressed in a paramilitary uniform.
Within hours, an amateur video showing Heath, slapping a black nightstick and exchanging words with the videographer, had aired on TV and ricocheted across the nation.
Among those who saw the footage was J. Christian Adams, who was in his office in the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division in Washington.
“I thought, ‘This is wrong, this is not supposed to happen in this country,'” Adams said. “There are armed men in front of a polling place, and I need to find out if they violated the law, because in my mind there’s a good chance that they did.”
The clash between the black nationalist and the white lawyer has mushroomed into a fierce debate over the government’s enforcement of civil rights laws, a dispute that will be aired next week when the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights unveils findings from a year-long investigation.