As a recent meeting of the D.C. Statehood Constitutional Convention deteriorated into chaos, with delegates insulting each other and shouting over committee memberships, convention president Charles I. Cassell, a gray-bearded, professorial-looking man, struggled to restore order with his gavel and his deep, rich voice.
Ironically, Cassell, a pioneer in the statehood movement, was said to be the cause of the disorder. A black caucus, blamed for breeding racial friction and mistrust in the 45-member body, was formed to assure his election as president over City Council member Hilda Mason.
Whether Cassell sowed discord in the convention--which he denies--or allowed it in his name, he is no stranger to disruptive, irreverent behavior; such tactics have marked his many years at the center of protest politics in Washington.
His detractors have labeled him "firebrand" and "maverick," and some of them view Cassell, several times a candidate but only once an elected official, as a loser and a misfit.
Cassell, 57, accepts the labels, finds few regrets and says he has "never wanted to prove anything to anybody."
Sam Smith, editor of the D.C. Gazette, calls Cassell "a man of tremendous leadership potential" but "one of the great underachievers of D.C. politics."
But beyond Cassell's many labels is a complex man whose life presents a mosaic of contrasting images that, in human terms, partly chronicle some 50 years of Washington history.
Among those who have influenced his life, two men stand prominently: his father, noted architect Albert I. Cassell, and the late civil rights activist Julius Hobson Sr.
Cassell traces the roots of his defiance to his upbringing under the contrasting influences of his stern, driven, highly successful father and his deeply religious and compassionate mother, who reserved her unqualified approval for her oldest son.
His father, son of a Baltimore coal truck driver, did house cleaning to pay for architecture training at Cornell University. One of the leading architects of his day, Albert Cassell has credits that include some of the grandest buildings at Howard University, where he started the school of engineering and architecture. Charles Cassell's mother, Martha Mason Cassell, a former Baltimore teacher, lived her Christianity, putting her energies into the YWCA and other uplifting efforts.
Cassell said his father was "always proving that he wasn't like the view they some whites had of colored people."
Cassell railed against the notion that he had to prove himself to others. "I never gave a good goddamn what anybody thought of me. And the reason was that my mother made me feel worthy. As long as I had her love and esteem I didn't give a ----.
"I think a lot of that had to do with the battle I had with my father, just for survival, because nobody could satisfy him, nobody was industrious enough, nobody was conscientious enough."
Growing up in the tall brick house designed by his father near the Howard campus, Cassell had to "bootleg" the popular swing and jazz music because his father thought it less refined than classical music. His mother winked at this early rebellion.
Cassell said his father was worried "about his children's making it, as he did . . . about this hostile white society out there that would think you're jitterbugs." His father frowned on movies as a waste of time, and on dances as frivolous.
His response to his father was: " 'I don't care what they think . . . because I know my mama loves me, I know I'm all right. I know I'm going to do all right,' " Cassell said.
Even though he denied it then, now as he reflects upon his childhood, Cassell says: "I needed his approval. I told myself I didn't." Other boys and their fathers were closer, played ball together, he said. "I never saw my father with a bat in his hand. I never saw him do anything but work . . . behind a desk, in conferences, doing responsible things."
After graduating from Dunbar High School, he followed his father's wish and entered architecture school at Cornell in 1942. But two years later, he was drafted into the Army. He served his conscription "in the most dangerous theater of all: southern USA." where he said his race consciousness crystallized.
"In the '40s, that was not the safest place for a black person to be," Cassell said. "In the South, a black man could die just for a look. Sometimes I wanted so badly to be overseas where it was safer."
After World War II, he finished his training at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., and returned to Washington and a rather ordinary life as husband and father, involved in civic associations and working as an architect for the Veterans Administration and the General Services Administration. It all changed when he met Hobson in 1962 and joined him on the picket lines to speak for the poor and downtrodden.
"We were constantly--Hobson, Doug Moore, Marion Barry--out there on the front line, testifying, demonstrating against a variety of things that we thought worked to the disadvantage" of city residents, he said. Cassell and many others "integrated all sorts of things," stopped the freeways that had disrupted black neighborhoods, blocked the building of the Three Sisters bridge, and challenged the FCC license of WMAL-TV, which effectively opened up television newscasts to black reporters and anchors.
Cassell seeks a legacy of guiding the District toward statehood, based on the activist tactics he learned from Hobson.
As one of Hobson's lieutenants, Cassell adopted the older man's style and shared his commitments. But Cassell has never gained the respect and veneration Hobson enjoyed.
If he could never do enough to prove his worth to his father, who believed in the Puritan ethic, Cassell found the opposite in Hobson: someone who accepted him as he was and took pleasure in irreverently bucking society's segregated status quo.
Cassell is a study of contrasts as well as controversy.
He is awesomely articulate and is quite comfortable at the speaker's podium. Yet he also spices his informal conversation with slang expressions of the jazz musicians he admires. Although his parents were both devoted to classical music, Cassell has made jazz his avocation, promoting it with concerts and memorials to jazz artists through his Charlin Jazz Society, a partnership with his roommate, Linda Wernick.
He is a man with intense pride in black culture and history, given to quoting King, Malcolm X and Paul Robeson. But racial loyalty does not extent to his private relationships. Although Wernick, 33, is white, Cassell said, she shares his views on racial injustice.
Above all, Cassell is seen as a man with no lack of self-assurance, a quality that he calls "ego bordering on arrogance," and considers an asset.
His ego is "the best thing I got going for me . . . and that lack of apology is what white folks can't deal with, or even your black opponents. Why should you apologize for it?" He concedes, though, that "sometimes my ego is misdirected, sometimes it gets me into trouble, but that's because it's used improperly, not because you shouldn't have it."
In the late '60s and early '70s, Cassell often made headlines by interrupting City Council meetings with his own agenda, urging welfare activists to "disrupt" Council deliberations, and leading school children in antiwar demonstrations.
He won the school board seat by two votes in a run-off election in 1968, and afterward lost races for congressional delegate in 1972, for reelection to the school board in 1973 and for at-large city councilman in 1976.
Absalom Jordan Jr., who met Cassell when Cassell cochaired the Black United Front with Stokeley Carmichael in 1968, finds him "competent, sensitive, and knowledgeable," but unelectable because he is "an antagonist to the white power structure. People saw what he did on the school board and it scared them."
Julius Hobson Jr. said he likes and admires Cassell for his firmness on issues, but "I'm just not sure if he was able to make the kind of personality change and compromises" necessary to win votes, he said.
Cassell insists he is "not a politician. I never wanted to be mayor. . . . Otherwise I wouldn't have done the things I did that in effect antagonized the kind of support you need to run for political office." He said his election failures are insignificant because he "did something more valuable than getting one lonely voice in public office. . . . Each political office I ran for was . . . an opportunity to push the concept of statehood. That's always been my purpose."
Yet some observers predict--and some of his admirers hope--that Cassell is laying stones for yet another campaign. The contest for the statehood convention presidency is proof that Cassell will run again, they believe. Critics of Cassell's victory were most offended by the black caucus' contention that Mason, who is black, represented the white delegates who wanted control. Caucus members scorned her white husband, Charles Mason, also a delegate, as proof of her loyalties.
Charlotte Holmes, a Small Business Administration budget analyst and convention delegate, thinks Cassell is a "grand rascal." He "just pierces me the way he treats Hilda Mason" in the convention, she said.
Cassell said he did little campaigning for a delegate's seat and none for the convention presidency. His ambition for elected office is past, he maintained.
He admits to a certain wiliness. Cassell once asked his friend Marion Barry for a job pumping gas at a Pride Inc. station when he was threatened with jail for failing to pay his ex-wife overdue child support and alimony. Then a $1,200-a-year school board member, Cassell was unable to work as an architect with local firms because they feared they would forfeit school building contracts by hiring someone who was a member of the board.
So Cassell pumped gas and called reporters who dutifully publicized his hardship. After the publicity, his former wife stopped suing him for back payments. He also got several job offers.
In what he calls the "one great tragedy" in his life, Cassell said the divorce has alienated him from his daughters, Norma, 30, and Kathy, 27. He said they have been led to believe that if they saw him, they would betray their mother. "I don't know their husbands, don't even know their names," Cassell said.
He watched Norma's law school graduation several years ago at Georgetown University from a distance but didn't get to talk to her. He now hears she is expecting a baby, but does not know when. Kathy, too, is a lawyer, he has heard.
"That's the one thing in my life I can't control; that makes me very sad. It's kind of unfinished business. Before I die I would like for them to acknowledge me, to call me daddy. . . . I loved being a father. I miss that very much. I would love to know what its like to be a grandfather."
In recent years, Cassell has put most of his public militancy behind him. He is occupied now with his $36,000-a-year job at the University of the District of Columbia, his membership on the Joint Committee on Landmarks, and his jazz organization. "My first love today is the Charlin Jazz Society," he said.
He is not materialistic, he said. He still drives the 1973 blue Ford Mustang he bought new, and buys few clothes.
The last few years he has been "developing myself," resuming the piano playing of his youth and deepening his involvement in the arts, including a brief flirtation with acting.
"I'm much more inclined toward the arts than I am toward politics," he said. "The idea of making alliances and not being able to be straightforward all the time is harder work. I'm too lazy to be a politician. I like music because it's honest."
"I like the fact that I don't have to answer to anybody," said Cassell, who claims to be the proud inheritor of Hobson's methods. "I can say what I want, when I want. That's a great freedom."