No description of Otha James Miller is complete without the word persistent. His routine is a quiet one now, that of a short, round, slow-walking, fast-talking man of 70. But for more than three decades he gnawed at the federal government with the determination of a bulldog chewing on the mailman's leg.
And he won. Otha Miller won to the tune of $4.2 million, for himself and hundreds of other workers in a slow-moving backwater of the federal bureaucracy, workers who were passed over for promotion after promotion because they are black.
Few of the employes that the government has agreed to compensate worked as long as Miller in that backwater, the transportation and claims division of the General Accounting Office. Not many started with Miller's qualifications, either: a bachelor's degree from the University of Illinois. And few received so little reward. After 32 years with GAO, Miller had attained a salary classification of only GS-4, reserved for low-level clerical workers.
"I came from a small town in Illinois," Miller said recently. "I came to work here, and I saw how they they were treating Negroes. I said, 'This is government? This is supposed to be a democracy, and we cannot be recognized as citizens? And we work for the government?' "
Through the years, Miller raged against the discrimination he said he felt all around him. He nagged, cajoled and pushed, until finally in 1972 he had a vehicle for formal action: In that year, antidiscrimination provisions of the 1964 Civil Rights Act were extended to cover the federal government. Miller filed a lawsuit, along with two other GAO workers, and last year as the case was about to go to trial the government agreed to a settlement.
After Otha Miller had endured decades of being slighted, insulted and sometimes ignored as if he were invisible, the government acknowledged -- in clipped, emotionless prose -- "the historic underrepresentation on a percentage basis" of blacks -- and white women -- in upper-level jobs at the division.
After the government agreed to pay the $4.2 million, it took a year for paper work to be concluded. Lawyers are working on a final plan to divide the money among more than 600 persons eligible for compensation, and the individual checks will go out as soon as they finish.
Miller stands to collect more than $40,000 for his efforts. Cynics might doubt Miller when he says he never really thought of the money, but hearing him tell his story -- in a staccato, yet oddly slurred voice, the legacy of infantile paralysis, which left him unable to speak clearly at all until after he was in the first grade -- takes the edge off the skepticism.
Miller, at 70, is in fact still working for the same division he started with in 1942, although it now is under the jurisdiction of the General Services Administration. He says he wants to stay several more years to make sure the government lives up to its promises to halt discrimination and promote more blacks to decent jobs.
"I came from a small town called Pontiac, Ill., about 90 miles south of Chicago," he said the other night, sitting in a dark green chair that was tidily covered with clear plastic like the rest of the furniture in the living room of the house he shares with friends.
"I was the only black kid in school, and I didn't even know the difference," the lifelong bachelor said. "I went to the junior prom with a little white girl, and I didn't know the difference."
When Miller arrived in Washington in 1939, after receiving his bachelor's degree in education from the University of Illinois, he learned the difference in a hurry. "Jim Crow" had been to Washington.
"I came to a haberdashery to buy some shirts, and the man said I couldn't buy them there," Miller recalled. "I went to a cafeteria to eat, and I ate there for about a week, and finally the man said I couldn't come there any more." Miller, the fighter, went to see the manager of the haberdashery and the manager of the cafeteria before relenting, but he never got his shirts or his lunch.
It was in this kind of racial atmosphere that Miller, after doing odd jobs and teaching nights at a Washington high school for a while, came to work at GAO in 1942. The agency, like the rest of the government, was undergoing rapid expansion because of World War II. "They needed the work done, so they had to hire blacks and women," said Miller.
He went to work as a GS-2 file clerk in an old GAO building on U Street NW where most of the agency's black employes were assigned. A part of it was called "the plantation" by the black workers. It did not take Miller long to notice that virtually all the blacks were doing clerical work in dead-end GS-1 or GS-2 jobs and always were passed over for promotions.
"I asked the personnel people about it," he said, "and they told me that if I didn't like it, well, I had my degree and I could go some place else, and they didn't ask me to come here in the first place. They acted like that was all a Negro could do, filing or something like that."
Miller, said he told the personnel officials he would not budge "until one of my race got something" worthwhile in the division. He decided to stay at GAO.
He pushed time and time again for promotions, only to be told that someone else had gotten the job. Several times, he was told that a veteran entitled to preferential treatment had gotten the position. Once, he said, he found that his name had been taken off a promotion list, ostensibly for his failure to respond to correspondence. He hired a lawyer who found that there were no unanswered letters, but meanwhile the job had been filled.
All the while, Miller waged guerrilla warfare. He demanded and won the right to join an informal office tennis club, even though he had never played the game before, because he thought that recreational contact with higher-ups would give him more chances to lobby for blacks in the division. He demanded an end to the practice of having two Christmas parties, one for whites and one for blacks. He squawked, he remembers, until they moved an office golf tournament from a country club in Virginia, where blacks could not play, to a public course -- "and a colored man won first prize, too."
In 1971, after 29 years with GAO, Miller was still a GS-4. That year, blacks in the agency formed a caucus and held a march to demonstrate their anger at being trapped in low-level jobs. The caucus elected Otha Miller its president.
The following year, the Citizens Advocate Center, a public interest and poverty law research group, began to urge the Civil Service Commission to investigate GAO's practices. D.C. Del. Walter E. Fauntroy sponsored a congressional hearing, at which Advocate Center representatives testified that more than three-fourths of the lowest-paid jobs in the agency were held by blacks. Otha Miller also testified, together with a few other employes.
That hearing led to the lawsuit under Title 7 of the Civil Rights Act. The case made its way through a glacially slow legal process until the settlement finally was agreed to last year by government attorneys and the plaintiffs' lawyers, Kerry A. Scanlon of the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and Marc L. Fleischaker of Arent, Fox, Kintner, Plotkin and Kahn.
There is a mountain of documents concerning the case, but the issue is summed up in affidavits filed by black GAO employes. Many others, Miller says, refused to cooperate, fearing for their jobs.
Hortense J. Tarrer was one of the plaintiffs with Miller in the lawsuit. According to her affidavit, she joined GAO in 1944, two years after Miller, as a GS-2. It took her 22 years to make GS-4, eight more years to make GS-6.
In a recent interview, Tarrer said she watched as whites with far less seniority were promoted over her, until finally, "I couldn't stand it anymore." She filed an internal discrimination complaint in 1972, and was eager to join the lawsuit.
Of Miller, she says, "He was always working and trying to advise other people of what they could do to help themselves. And he had to help those who wouldn't help themselves. So many wouldn't do a thing."
Was GAO an island of Mississippi in the middle of Washington? Attorney Scanlon said he is not sure. "You've got to remember that a lot of departments had really bad records" in hiring and promoting blacks, he said.
Scanlon said the situation in GAO was exacerbated by the fact that it is an agency with many professional employes, such as accountants, and many clerical workers, but few employes in the middle. While blacks were kept off the career track in many agencies, in GAO mid-level GS-6 through GS-9 jobs were a rarity to begin with (the transportation section of Miller's division examines records to make the sure the government is not overcharged by shippers, while the claims section approves all claims against the government.)
He says of Miller, "He's an amazing guy. Now, he's lost a little energy because he's getting pretty old. But you can just imagine what this guy must have been like in 1944."
Miller doesn't appear to have slowed much. He is a GS-9 now. He still moonlights as a tax preparer, which he has been doing to supplement his income since shortly after he arrived at GAO. He says he is satisfied with the way things worked out and that he plans to use the money to pay old bills and help a grandniece through school.
How does he feel about the whites at GAO, his adversaries for so many years? "I give them credit for one thing: They respected me. They called me 'Mr. Miller.' I let them know right off that that was who I was."
He smiles. "That's what I teach the Negroes on the job: The way you carry yourself demands respect."