The Senate Judiciary Committee's confirmation hearing on Griffin B. Bell yesterday became a duel between witnesses who presented widely differing opinions about the Attorney General-designate's civil-rights record.
Bell has become the most controversial of President-elect Jimmy Carter's Cabinet choices because of disputes about his role in the South's desegregation battles when he was an Atlanta lawyer and a federal appeals court judge.
Yesterday, the committee heard a barrage of contradictory testimony about that role.
Joseph L. Rauh Jr., former chairman of Americans for Democratic Action, denounced Bell as a man "who gave aid and comfort to the segregationists of his country," while former Watergate Special Prosecutor Leon Jaworski lauded him as a "thoroughly qualified" candidate who would never "yield to pressure."
Rep. Parren J. Mitchell (D-Md.) chairman of the Congressional black Caucus, charged that Bell was "the mastermind of Georgia's massive resistance" to school desegration during the late 1950s.
On the other hand, longtime Atlanta civil rights leader, Howard Cochrane, testified that Bell had worked hard behind the scenes during the "massive resistance" period to exert a moderating influence on the state's leaders and prepare the way for eventual school integration.
Most of the testimony centered on Bell's activities as a legal adviser to former Georgia Gov. Ernest Vandiver from 1958 to 1961. And, the questioning by committee membes focused on trying to reconstruct what those activities were and how they fitted into what several described as "the temper of those times."
The questioning made clear that Bell's nomination is a matter of considerable sentivity for the committee particularly those liberal Democratic senators who have strong civil rights records but who are reluctant to vote against the nominee of their party's President-elect.
So far, the only really sharp questioning of Bel's record has come from Republican Sen. Charles McC. Marthias of Maryland. One anti-Bell witness, Clarence Mitchell, head of the Washington office of the NAACP even came close in his testimony to charging the Democratic senators with remaining silent and treating Bell with kid gloves.
Rauh gave the committee a detailed analysis that he had made of Bell's legal record during the Vandiver administration and later as a judge of the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Bell's record, Rauh charged, consisted of "14 unbroken years of segregationist thinking" that went through four successive stages. Rauh characterized them as ditch-by-ditch retreats through "massive resistance, massive recalcitrance, freedom of choice and putting roadblocks in the path of court-ordered desegregation."
He especially attacked Bell's assertions that he had tried to act as a moderating force on Vandiver, principally by setting up an official body, known as the Sibley Commission, that held hearings throughout Gergia in the early 1960s to gauge public opinion about school integration.
The conclusions of the Sibley Commission, Rauh charged, consisted exclusively of trying to point out ways in which the Georgia state government could retreat from its "massive resistance" stance by finding less obvious, but still "clearly illegal ways" to miantain school segregation.
"You can't find one piece of corroboration that Judge Bell was a moderating influence," Rauh said. "How is it that he cannot come forward with one scrap of paper to show he was a moderating influence?"
However, a totally different view was given by Cochrane, a black YMCA official and a founder of the Atlanta Negro Voters League. He testified that during the Vandiver administration, Bell had approached his group and set up an informal liaison system to keep the black community informed about the racial issue.
"He asked us for help to buy time." Cochrane said. "He told us he was trying to convince Vandiver to change his position. He told us again and again that desegregation was the law of the land and would have to be accepted."
Jaworksi testified that he first became acquainted with Bell in 1961, when, as an official of the American Bar Association, he was asked to check Bell's qualifications for appointment to the federal bench.
He said he found no evidence of racist attitudes in Bell's record. If he had, Jaworski added, he would not have given him the endorsement that he subsequently forwarded to then Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy; and he said he believed that Kennedy would not have recommended Bell's appointment if such attitudes had been uncovered.
However, Rauh later countered by asserting that Jaworski had obtained much of his information about Bell's record from two Georgia establishment lawyers who were reported by civil rights forces as "the general counsels for segregation in the South."
Both Rauh and Parren Mitchell also sharply attacked Bell's membership in three social clubs that exclude blacks. Bell has said he will quit the clubs if the Senate confirms him but will not resign until he is confirmed.
Rauh said Bell's continued memberships "an insult to the people who are excluded from such clubs." And Mitchell characterized Bell's refusal to say that he won't rejoin the clubs after leaving the government as trying to "put his prejudice in a blind trust" until he returns to private life.
The hearings continue today.