The story of Kamau Marcharia (a.k.a. Robert John Lewis)
by Kevin Alexander Gray
Over decades of fighting to empower Blacks in South Carolina, Kamau Marcharia has made lots of enemies. Marcharia is running for a seat in the state legislature, but his foes are mounting a campaign against a fellow named Robert John Lewis – the guy he used to be.
The story of Kamau Marcharia (a.k.a. Robert John Lewis)
by Kevin Alexander Gray
This article previously appeared in Counterpunch.
“Early this year Marcharia announced his bid for a seat in the state legislature from a district that has not had black representation since the 1890s.”
Who is Kamau Marcharia, a.k.a. Robert John Lewis, currently running for the South Carolina State Legislature from Fairfield County, and how did he get tangled up in sex offender punishment and politics, voting rights litigation and school board representation, race politics, name-calling, and lies?
A major injustice is being perpetrated against Marcharia right now, but to understand it, we haveto go back a ways. On July 9, 1964, Marcharia, then going by as he put it, “his slave name” Robert John Lewis, was found guilty by an all-white jury in New Jersey of atrocious assault, battery, kidnapping, rape, and carrying a concealed weapon—despite the testimony of the victim herself that he was not among those who had attacked her, the arresting officer's testimony that Lewis was not among those arrested at or near the scene, the fact that the "concealed weapon" was discovered in the car of the other defendants while Lewis was not present, and the prosecutor's own remarks at trial seeming to exculpate, rather than implicate, him.
The female victim testified that Lewis was not one of the men who had raped her but that he was present at the initial scene of the fight between her boyfriend and 6 assailants. The woman and man attacked were white. Their attackers were black. Other witnesses also testified that Lewis “resisted attempts of the others to involve him in the battle, and left because he was powerless to prevent the completion of the crimes.”
Lewis left the scene as the violence escalated. He walked to the main road where he hitched a ride to the home of Esaw Mitchell, the father of one of the boys he had just left that was about five miles away. He stayed a bit then returned to his father’s home in Philadelphia. The next day he heard from the elder Mitchell that the police where looking for him and Mitchell’s son, also named Esaw, with a warning, “they were two dead niggers as soon as we (the police) catch up with them.” Lewis and Mitchell fled only to be arrested later in the year shortly after the assassination of John Kennedy. He went on trial June 8, 1964.
“Though it was his first conviction of any kind, the jury gave him 50 - 57 years.”
This was in 1960s, during civil rights' agitation and social upheaval, a "time in history when white folks did not take too kindly to black people who were accused of committing crimes against whites." Though it was his first conviction of any kind, the jury gave him 50 - 57 years. At the time of the crime he was probably closer to 16. He entered Trenton State Prison the day after the verdict, officially age 19.
He wrote his own unsuccessful appeals. It wasn’t until writer and lawyer Andrew Vachss and Ramón Jimenez, a student from Harvard Law School, got involved that his appeal saw movement. Vachss filed an amicus brief on his behalf and in 1973 wrote up the case for the New England Law Review: “Parole As Post-Conviction Relief: The Robert Lewis Decision.” Lewis was finally granted parole with no conditions and walked out of Trenton on September 18, 1973. He had spent 10 years in the maximum-security prison, for crimes that not only he, but also the victim, continually maintained he had never committed.
Lewis had adopted the name Kamau Marcharia in his teens. It's Swahili for "black warrior." Marcharia went on to spend 35 years working as a community organizer, much of that time as director of the local grassroots group Fairfield United Action (FUA) in South Carolina. Fairfield is a mostly rural area with a 60% black population, where 80 percent of the county’s children qualify for free lunch. The per capita income of the county is $14,911 and 20 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.
In the late-eighties FUA organized protest against the civil and human rights’ abuses of then-sheriff Leroy “Bubba” Montgomery, who had "inherited" the job from his father. He was eventually driven from office, and Herman Young, the county’s first black sheriff, took his place. Young still holds the office.
“He had spent 10 years in the maximum-security prison, for crimes that not only he, but also the victim, continually maintained he had never committed.”
Some older residents may remember that it was Marcharia’s group that got the Post Office to allow them to put up mailboxes at their rural residences so that they could receive home mail delivery. This didn’t happen in the 60s or 70s, but in the 80s.
The 80s and 90s were the busiest time for FUA. There were the lawsuits filed by FUA against state and regional banks forcing compliance to the Community Reinvestment Act. And, the hands-on efforts to weatherize the homes of low and moderate-income residents of Fairfield. Also, FUA, along with South Carolina Fair Share, another local grassroots group, legally challenged the Fairfield County court system’s habit of only selecting all-white jury pools. And, the organization sued the county in federal court over its at-large voting scheme, which over the years had resulted in few blacks being elected to office in the predominately black county. The court victory installed the single-member voting structure in place today.
FUA tackled exploitative business operations in the county such as the Kennecott Ridgeway Mining Company, which purchased over 2,400 acres for their gold mining operations in the county. Many landowners made quick money over the sale of their land to the company. Yet it was FUA along with other environmental groups that brought up the resulting ecological cost – such as the threat to the local water supply and wildlife; the two 400 feet deep, 85 acres pits dug to take out the gold and; the huge 381-acre tailing pond that held the residue and sodium cyanide solution used to extract the ore. The discarded ore was deposited in two vast heaps that the locals called “Mount Cyanide and Mount Overburden.” Early on, FUA and others, organized community input into the placement and operation of South Carolina Electric and Gas’ V.C. Summer Nuclear Power Plant.
Since 1998 Marcharia has held a seat on Fairfield County Council in South Carolina. He’s consistently taken on local corrupt politicians who have used their office for personal power and money. Consequently, he has made some powerful and persistent enemies. In 2006, his political adversaries sent a disbarred attorney and AME preacher Ernest Yarborough to his home to make him a job offer. When that didn’t work Marcharia said, “they threatened to expose my background and my incarceration… They also threatened to expose me as a homosexual, which I am not. Then they went and filed with the Fairfield County Election Commission that I lied on my voter application and as a convicted felon I should not be allowed to hold office.”
“The organization county’s at-large voting scheme had over the years resulted in few blacks being elected to office in the predominately black county.”
The Commission conducted a hearing and found Marcharia eligible to hold office. During that time there were shots fired into his house. The State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) investigated but found no proof of who was doing it so the investigation did not move forward.
When efforts to discredit him in the community failed, his detractors went to South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford and Attorney General Henry McMaster, both Republicans, to get Marcharia placed on the sex offender’s registry. They were sent to SLED, which directed Sheriff Young to place him on the registry. Marcharia: “I heard through the grapevine that two of the most powerful officials/business people in my county went to our sheriff (who I had helped get elected in his first campaign) and told him he would never be elected again if he did not place me on the sex offender registry.“
Young sent Marcharia a letter and then called him to say that, due to the battery and rape conviction, if he did not come in to register he would be incarcerated. At first Marcharia refused but soon relented and reported to the sheriff. The sheriff did note on his file that he is “not a predator” – but this does not remove Marcharia from the list or the restrictions that come with it. Twice each year (in November and May), he has to report to register and pay a fine of $200, a fine that Marcharia says, “I refuse to pay.”
At the time, the local paper, the Herald-Independent editorialized in his defense and many community members came out to support him. Carnell Murphy, former council chair and one of the main antagonists in the campaign against him, was defeated in his re-election bid in 2006 after twenty-five years in office. Marcharia was re-elected for a fourth term in office in 2008.
Early this year Marcharia announced his bid for a seat in the state legislature from a district that has not had black representation since the 1890s. He immediately gained the support of the SC Black Legislative Caucus.
“His detractors went to South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford and Attorney General Henry McMaster, both Republicans, to get Marcharia placed on the sex offender’s registry.”
The white, Democrat incumbent Marcharia hopes to unseat is State Representative Boyd Brown. Brown is the 23-year-old son of a prosperous local realtor who is both chair of the County Council and cousin of the area’s State Senator, Creighton Coleman. Both Brown and Coleman recently angered black voters in the county by successfully pushing legislation that would allow them to take over the elected county school board and "select" member. Ironically, both legislators went to the private Christian academy and never attended public schools.
Marcharia and others immediately challenged this attempted take over of the school district, and the U.S. Justice Department Review is presently reviewing the legislation. The Black Caucus and the ACLU support the affected citizens.
In a heated exchange that took place during a Democratic Caucus meeting called by the Black Caucus to discuss deteriorating race relations Brown is alleged to have said to former Black Caucus chair Leon Howard of Richland County, that he "wasn't born during the civil rights era and 'didn't give a fuck about that shit.'" Brown denies the insult but does admit to participating in a heated exchange with Howard in which both men traded "F-bombs."
Both Brown and Coleman struck back at Marcharia by filing 3 bills in their respective legislative bodies that would 1) “provide that a registered sex offender is disqualified from registering to vote,” 2) “…prohibit a registered sex offender from being appointed to a public office,” and 3) “prohibit a registered sex offender from being employed by the state.”
Most believe that Brown and Coleman’s “offenders’ bills won’t be passed, at least this year. Brown is rumored to have gone further with robo calls and a "whispering campaign" across the county that Marcharia is a “sex offender” to blunt his electoral threat. Only the June primary outcome will tell whether their efforts to smear Marcharia further and end his political career will be successful.
All who care about justice, not just for those innocent and framed like Marcharia but for ex-offenders who've paid their debt as well, have a stake in what's happening in Fairfield County.