Greensboro's African American Community Newspaper since 1967

Exclusive: How the N.C. NAACP put the the brakes on Farr’s nomination


Editor’s Note – Our reporter was the ONLY member of the press to accompany the N.C. NAACP delegation to Washington last week to lobby against the Thomas Farr judicial confirmation, and was with them every step of the way as they met with two Democratic Senators, and four Republican Senate staffs – including that of S.C. Senator Tim Scott.

This is his EXCLUSIVE account of how the N.C. NAACP delegation tirelessly, but successfully, accomplished their mission.

They were on a mission from North Carolina.

A delegation of N.C. NAACP members traveled to Washington, D.C. to oppose the nomination of Thomas Farr to be a federal judge. (L-R) Hilary O. Shelton, Washington Bureau Director of the NAACP stands with Dr. T. Anthony Spearman, president of the N.C. NAACP along with U.S. Senator Kamala Harris (D- CA.); Janice Spearman, secretary of the Greensboro Branch N.C. NAACP; and N.C. NAACP members representing 11 branches across the state. Farr was not confirmed for the position. Photo by Cash Michaels/ Carolina Peacemaker
Just after 4:30 a.m. on Wednesday, Nov. 28, a bus carrying more than thirty members from eleven branches of the North Carolina NAACP, made its way from Raleigh to Washington, D.C. to lobby U.S. Senators not to confirm Pres. Trump’s nomination of Raleigh attorney Thomas Farr to a federal judicial bench in the state’s Eastern District.

That district is comprised of 44 counties from Wake to New Hanover, with court held in six cities.

The Eastern District is also home to approximately 32 percent of North Carolina’s African American population, with 28 out of 44 counties having populations of color as high as 50 percent.

And yet, in the district’s 145-year history, there has never been an African American to preside over a federal court there. It’s had a vacant bench for the past 11 years, and when President Barack Obama nominated two qualified Black females for the post (including a former N.C. Supreme Court associate justice), Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC), blocked both nominations, making sure that neither candidate got even a hearing by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

That has always rankled North Carolina’s civil rights community, and Trump nominating Raleigh Attorney Thomas Farr in 2017 didn’t help.

Farr was already well-known as a campaign attorney for the late segregationist Republican Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, and had been associated with the NCGOP’s so-called “ballot security” Black voter suppression initiative in 1990, where more than 120,000 post cards were sent to Black Democrats across the state, erroneously threatening them with “five years in jail” if they were found to be voting outside of their assigned precincts.

A federal consent degree ultimately forced the Helms campaign to stop the illegal, and racially intimidating practice.

Farr’s Anti-Civil Rights History

In later years, Farr carved out a reputation for defending companies against claims of racial and sexual discrimination. And after Republicans won majorities in the N.C. General Assembly in 2011, and later began passing voter photo ID legislation and skewed redistricting plans – Farr represented GOP legislative leaders, legally defending schemes that were later ruled unconstitutional for their apparent intent to disenfranchise Black voters.

Having a man with a racial history like Farr being confirmed to a lifetime serving on a federal bench in a judicial district where much of North Carolina’s African American population resides, was something North Carolina’s oldest “and boldest” civil rights organization was not about to tolerate.

Shortly after Farr initially had what amounted to a 12-minute Senate Judiciary Committee hearing and passed muster earlier this year, N.C. NAACP Pres. Rev. Dr. T. Anthony Spearman and fellow members were in Washington, D.C. lobbying against him.

Senate Maneuvers and N.C. NAACP Heads Back to D.C.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) decided, however, to delay a final confirmation vote until after the midterms, perhaps to quiet the building opposition and uproar.

The move only gave Farr’s critics more time to do their homework, however, so that if his confirmation vote would be finally addressed by the Senate Republican majority before the current Congress ended, Spearman and the N.C. NAACP were ready.

And yet, as ready and determined as they were, something happened before they arrived in Washington that no one expected, and it strengthened their mission beyond anything they had imagined.

Before Dr. Spearman even arrived in a very cold and windy nation’s capital, he was carrying a “big gun” to the fight – former Charlotte mayor, and Jesse Helms’ Black opponent in the contentious 1990 U.S. Senate race, Harvey Gantt.

Spearman had wanted to bring the retired Gantt with him to Washington to help lobby Republican senators personally, but instead, Gantt sent a statement on N.C. NAACP letterhead which said, in part, that he opposed Farr’s confirmation because of his role in the Helms campaign, accused Farr of “…interfering with the voting rights of Black North Carolinians…,” and concluded by stating flatly that, “The Senate should reject his nomination.”

Rev. Spearman brought other letters of protest too, asking McConnell not to confirm Farr, including one from the N.C. Legislative Black Caucus, which called Farr “…a race-baiting jurist…”

DOJ Filings, Farr Comes Clean

When the N.C. NAACP contingent finally arrived in D.C., they were met at the historic United Methodist Building across from the U.S. Supreme Court by Hilary O. Shelton, Washington Bureau director of the NAACP. That’s when Shelton and his staff shared with N.C. NAACP members that the night before, The Washington Post reported that a previously unknown 1991 U.S. Dept. of Justice (DOJ) report “recommended [a] lawsuit against the North Carolina Republican Party and the Helms for Senate Committee,” alleging after an investigation that the named defendants “…intimidated and threatened or attempted to intimidate and threaten Black voters concerning their right to vote…”

On Page 12, paragraph 7 of the DOJ report (a copy of which was handed out to each member of the N.C. NAACP delegation) it stated that Thomas Farr “…was the primary coordinator of the 1984 ballot security program” for the NCGOP and the Helms for Senate Committee, which involved sending out postcards to predominately Black voting districts in order to challenge some at the polls on Election Day.

The paragraph went on to say that while Farr “…did not play an active role in the 1990 Helms campaign, he was sufficiently connected to the Helms Committee [to help plan the 1990 ballot security program].

So not only did Farr coordinate the 1984 voter suppression effort of the N.C. Republican Committee and Helms’ reelection bid against then Gov. Jim Hunt, but based on his experience, advised on the 1990 effort against Gantt. Farr was more involved that he publicly admitted in the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, and subsequent written inquiry from Democratic Sen. Diane Feinstein.

He was later forced to admit that he was more involved than he first let on.

N.C. NAACP Makes Its Case

With Shelton leading the way, the N.C. NAACP delegation made its way to the Dirksen Senate Office Building, a short walking distance away, intent not only on intensely lobbying the four Republican senators they had appointments with not to confirm Farr, but to drive home the new information per the 1991 DOJ report that nailed Farr for his role in ballot security activities in not one, but two racially charged elections.

The goal was to either have the nomination pulled in light of the new information, or to get at least one other Republican senator join Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona to oppose Farr’s nomination. Flake, who is stepping down after this Congress, had already signaled that he would oppose Farr’s confirmation. If one other GOP senator could be convinced to join Flake, Senate Democrats would have 51 votes against, enough to sink the nomination, even if Vice President Pence came in to vote with the Republicans.

The confirmation with the entire Senate was scheduled for the next day, November 29.

The first meeting was with the staffs of North Carolina’s two Republican senators Richard Burr and Thom Tillis, in Tillis’ office. The staffs were polite to the extent that they needed to be, but still seemed unsympathetic.

The next meeting was over in the Hart Senate Office Building next door with a staffer for Republican Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado, who at least seemed interested, compared to the Burr and Tillis staffers.

The final meeting was with the staff of Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina.

Scott, the only Black Republican in the Senate, was being watched very carefully by numerous observers. The thinking was despite his conservative politics, even Scott couldn’t deny the racism of former colleague Jesse Helms, or those who worked for him.

It was there where Shelton, Rev. Spearman, various N.C. NAACP members, and even Derrick Johnson, national president of the NAACP who joined the meeting later unexpectedly, implored Scott’s staffers to impress upon their boss the significance of the DOJ revelations, and how they prove that Thomas Farr “was not fit” to serve a lifetime appointment to the federal bench.

Spearman even pressed the staffers to make sure they had Sen. Scott speak with Harvey Gantt, a South Carolina native, and the first Black student to attend Clemson University.

In between meetings with the Republican senate staffs, the N.C. NAACP delegation met with Democratic senators Kamala Harris of California, and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

Both urged the delegation to “fight on.”

As the long day ended, the tired N.C. NAACP’ers left for home in North Carolina, worn, but hopeful that they made their point effectively against Farr’s confirmation.

Sen. Scott’s Decision

The next day, Sen. Scott announced that after much thought, speaking with Farr on the phone, and close study of the 1991 DOJ report, he would vote “no” on confirmation.

The reaction in North Carolina was off the scale.

“I commend Sen. Scott and the other Senators who took a firm stand to protect the integrity of the federal judiciary…,” applauded N.C. Congressman G.K. Butterfield (D-NC-1)

“ should never have been nominated,” declared National NAACP Pres./CEO Derrick Johnson in his statement.

“We traveled to Washington because we’re committed teachers,” Dr. Spearman said, “… and U.S. Senators needed a voting rights lesson.”

A Win and What’s Next?

So what will be Pres. Trump and Senate Republicans next move? The Farr nomination is only one of two that have gone down in flames during Trump’s term, with 84 judicial nominees confirmed over the past two years.

Some observers suggest Trump and the Republicans just may wait until the next Congress and new GOP-led Senate to re-nominate Farr, this time with a bigger Republican majority.

But until that happens, if it happens, Rev. Spearman and the N.C. NAACP are proud that they hammered their point home when it most counted…at the 11th hour.

“As of today, we know that our fight and our tenacity has paid off,” Rev. Dr. Spearman said. “We claim victory today, but we’re not done fighting.”