Rush to Judgment

In World War II, Houston attorney Leon Jaworski prosecuted a group of black American soldiers. In a hurried-up trial, they were court-martialed and sentenced to hard labor. The verdict was probably wrong. And Jaworski had a lot to do with that.

Jaworski's success in such cases also shows that the court-martial was not a make-or-break moment for his overall career, Draper argues. "It's disingenuous to suggest that but for this case Leon Jaworski would have toiled forever in obscurity," he says. "This was a very, very talented, driven and ambitious individual."

Even if ambition drove Jaworski over an ethical line, he shouldn't be singled out as the sole target of blame. Hamann and Draper agree that the judges in the case could have used their authority to compel him to hand over the report.

Still, even Draper ultimately qualifies his defense of Jaworski. "The conclusion that I drew about my grandfather a long time ago was that he was a great man but also greatly flawed," he says. "And that's probably the only kind of great man there is."

In his book, Jack Hamann argues that many black soldiers from Houston were wrongly accused of murder and rioting during WWII.
In his book, Jack Hamann argues that many black soldiers from Houston were wrongly accused of murder and rioting during WWII.
In his book, Jack Hamann argues that many black soldiers from Houston were wrongly accused of murder and rioting during WWII.
Baylor University
In his book, Jack Hamann argues that many black soldiers from Houston were wrongly accused of murder and rioting during WWII.

Michael Stewart measures his father's greatness by the number of strikes against him. The Jim Crow South. The lack of college. The dearth of connections. Eleven kids to feed in his two-bedroom house on the wrong side of the tracks. He was a man who always worked two or more jobs to make ends meet -- repairing cars, driving cabs, snapping photos in nightclubs, humping a rifle for the National Guard. And still he never complained. Indeed, the biggest strike against Les Stewart might have been the one he kept secret, even from his sons, until the day in Austin when Hamann showed up.

Hamann's visit in 1987 triggered feelings that Stewart had repressed for decades. Hamann recalls his bitterness -- the most he had seen in any of the veterans -- as he told his sons for the first time the story of the riot, painfully recalling how he had remained on the sidelines while the chaos of the riot raged around him. "It hurt him to be wrongly accused," says Michael Stewart, a cherubic southwest Houston postal worker. "It hurt his heart more than anything, because my dad is a man of integrity."

During the court-martial, Stewart had been identified by only two men. One was Farr, who grew up in Utah and had admitted he'd seen few black men before joining the army. He identified Stewart by the "upright" hair on his head, yet a photo taken of him near the time of the riot showed his hair as close-cropped. Stewart's other accuser was Italian prisoner Agosto Todde. Hamann later discovered that Todde had been identified at a prison camp as a fascist sympathizer and had been sent to join the lightly supervised Fort Lawton group by mistake. Todde had suspiciously identified a whopping 17 black rioters, even though the night had been dark and other victims had been able to finger only one or two.

Sentenced during the court-martial to eight years' hard labor, Stewart served two years and opted back into the army under a program that allowed him to earn an honorable discharge. He served nearly six years' active duty, including a stint overseas. On his way back from a posting in Korea to his home in Austin, his train was stopped at the Texas border, he told Hamann. The black soldiers on the train were commanded to disembark and head toward the back to a car reserved for Negroes.

Despite the unflagging racism and the two-year hole in his life, Stewart, who died in 1992, remained a faithful military man. He served for 25 years as a reserve officer in the National Guard. He wore his uniform "like a badge of honor," his sons recall. He even talked up the military as a career move, "a great opportunity for somebody to be a man."

With his father's blessing, Michael Stewart enlisted in the army in November 1985 and graduated from basic training three months later at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. Four years later his tall and muscular brother Mark joined him. "To me it was to prove something to [Dad]," Mark Stewart says. To show him that "I can go out and do it and be successful."

Yet the brothers quickly found that army life didn't meet their rosy expectations. Mark Stewart was sent to Operation Desert Storm in Iraq, where he says white soldiers were given preference over him and other blacks for trips home. Michael Stewart believes that, at a base in Germany, he was unfairly disciplined for a work absence by a racist white officer. "To be honest," he says, "I dealt with prejudice pretty much my whole active duty career."

Sour personal experiences with race in the army have made the Stewarts strong supporters of a bill in Congress that, 60 years after the fact, would reopen the books on the court-martial. Sponsored by Representative Jim McDermott (Democrat, Washington), House Resolution 3174 would reinvestigate the riot with an eye toward compensating any soldiers who were wrongly convicted. "I think there is reason to believe that some of these soldiers may have been victims of racial injustice," McDermott says. "We need to know, and we need to redress any error or injustice."

The bill is stalled in the Armed Services Committee behind pressing legislation dealing with Iraq, but has the backing of many members of the armed forces, some of whom see eerie parallels with the modern Abu Ghraib court-martial, in which senior officers have been accused of a cover-up. "Most general officers, they would say that if justice was done incorrectly, we should correct it," says Bud Ray, a Fort Lawton-based officer who handles equal opportunity issues for the army across the Pacific Northwest. "Of course, they are not going to stand up and say right off [the black soldiers] were railroaded, but of course, all the evidence suggests that's exactly what happened."

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