Who is Kamau Marcharia a.k.a. Robert John Lewis and why should anyone care about him? And, how did he get tangled up in sex offender punishment and politics, voting rights litigation and school board representation, nuclear energy, race politics and black versus white representation, name-calling, greed and lies?
On July 9, 1964, Marcharia, then going by, as he put it, “his slave name” Robert Lewis, was found guilty by an all-white jury in New Jersey of atrocious assault, battery, kidnapping and rape, and carrying a concealed weapon— despite the testimony of the victim herself that he was not among the defendants who had kidnapped and raped her, the arresting officer’s testimony that Lewis was not among those arrested at or near the scene on the evening of the crime, 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.
Lewis was accused of committing a violent crime in the 1960s. It was a period of civil rights’ agitation and social upheaval. It was also a time in history when white folks did not take too kindly to black people who were accused of committing crimes against whites.
The jury gave him 50 – 57 years. He entered Trenton State Prison the day after the verdict. He was officially age 19 at the time of sentencing for his first conviction of any kind but he was probably 16 at most at the time of his arrest; no birth certificate was ever produced, and “he pretended to be older in order to avoid what he had been told was a worse juvenile system.”
Lewis spent the next 10 years in the maximum-security prison.
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 in his case that his appeal saw movement. The two worked for 5 years to get him released. 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, for crimes that not only he, but also the victim, continually maintained he had never committed.
Lewis adopted the name Kamau Marcharia in his teens. It’s Swahili for “black warrior.” He later legally changed his name to Marcharia in the 90s.
Since 1998 Marcharia has held a seat on Fairfield County Council in South Carolina. Fairfield is a mostly rural area with a 60 per cent black population and where 80 per cent of the county’s children qualify for free lunch. The per capita income of the county is $14,911 and 20 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line.
Before his stint on County Council, Marcharia spent 35 years or so working as a community organizer, much of that time as director of the local grassroots group Fairfield United Action (FUA).
In the late-eighties FUA organized protests against the civil and human rights’ abuses of then-sheriff Leroy “Bubba” Montgomery, who inherited the job from his father. He was eventually driven from office. Herman Young, the county’s first black sheriff, took his place. Young still serves as sheriff.
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. 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, which sits in Marcharia’s council district and is now expanding operations.
Along the way Marcharia has 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, Marcharia’s 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 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 called him to say that 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, which Marcharia said, “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 had not had black representation since the 1890s. He immediately gained the support of the SC Black Legislative Caucus.
Doubtless, his announcement didn’t go over well with white, Democrat incumbent, State Representative Boyd Brown whom Marcharia hopes to unseat. Brown is the 23-year-old son of the town’s rich white realtor who is chair of the County Council and the cousin of the area’s State Senator Creighton Coleman. Both men 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.
Their attempt to take over the school district was immediately challenged under the pre-clearance provision of Section 5 of Voting Rights Act and is now under U.S. Justice Department review and under threat of federal court action brought by Marcharia and others. The Black Caucus and the ACLU support the affected citizens.
In a heated exchange that took place during a Democratic caucus meeting, 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 an argument with Howard in which both men traded “F-bombs.”
Howard, though, says Brown was the one who said “fuck you” to him first.
“I just told him that the feeling was mutual,” Howard says.
Brown and Coleman struck back at Marcharia filing three 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.”
The campaign against Marcharia 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. Most believe that Brown and Coleman’s “offenders’ bills won’t be passed, at least this year. Only the June primary outcome will tell whether their efforts to smear Marcharia further and end his political career will be successful.
Those who care about justice, not just for the innocent, but for ex-offenders as well, should care about Marcharia’s work and his plight.
KEVIN ALEXANDER GRAY is a civil rights organizer in South Carolina and author of Waiting for Lightning to Strike! The Fundamentals of Black Politics, published by AK Press / CounterPunch Books. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.