Thursday, August 18, 2005

Roberts' Indiana Hometown Draws Scrutiny

Roberts' Indiana Hometown Draws Scrutiny

Associated Press Writers

LONG BEACH, Ind. (AP) -- Like many towns across America, the exclusive lakefront community where Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts Jr. grew up during the racially turbulent 1960s and '70s once banned the sale of homes to nonwhites and Jews.

Just three miles from the nearly all-white community of Long Beach, two days of looting and vandalism erupted when Roberts was 15, barely intruding on the Mayberry-like community that was largely insulated from the racial strife of that era.

It was here that the 50-year-old Roberts lived from elementary school until he went away to Harvard in 1973, and that decade - as well as the rest of his life - is receiving intense scrutiny as the Senate gears up for its Sept. 6 confirmation hearings on President Bush's first Supreme Court nominee.

Some of the attention focuses on Roberts' civil rights record as Bush replaces retiring Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, the key swing voter on affirmative action issues.

Roberts' criticism of racial "quotas" in some documents from his work as a White House lawyer has alarmed civil rights groups and some Democrats, who say he may be a partisan for conservative causes. Other memos from his time in the Reagan Justice Department portray an attorney who urged his bosses to restrict affirmative action and Title IX sex discrimination lawsuits.

It is hard to know how much Roberts' upbringing in this northern Indiana community on the shores of Lake Michigan influenced his views. Some say the fact that there were riots and restrictions on home ownership is not relevant at all.

"I don't think that would have had any bearing on John Roberts' life," said Micky Gallas, a local real estate agent who attended grade school with Roberts, referring to the racial covenants.

Roberts' father, a manager at a Bethlehem Steel mill in nearby Burns Harbor, moved the family to Long Beach in the early 1960s.

The family purchased land a few blocks from the beach in 1966 and built an unassuming tri-level house. The Roberts property did not include a racially restrictive covenant, according to LaPorte County deed records, and the restrictions had begun fading away by then.

Other homes built decades earlier in the town had covenants. Deeds on file from the 1940s in Long Beach ban the sale or lease of houses to "any person who is not a Caucasian gentile."

The covenants date to the community's early days in the 1920s as a summer getaway for Chicagoans.

"Every time you would go to an area you would find there were restrictions against a certain type," said Phyllis Waters, who moved to Long Beach in 1958 and bought Century 21 Long Beach Real Estate in 1967. "What they didn't like, they'd restrict."

Fern Eddy Schultz, the county historian, said the covenants were common for property near Lake Michigan. "They didn't want particular people to have homes around the lake areas," Schultz said.

Covenants have gotten attention in the past. President Bush purchased a house in 1988 in Dallas with a covenant restricting blacks from buying the property. His staff said Bush was unaware of the deed restriction, which was void under Texas law, when he purchased the home.

In Long Beach, nearly all residents were white when Roberts was growing up, a makeup that has changed little in four decades. Today, nearly 98 percent of the town's 1,500 residents are white.

The median income in 1970 topped $18,000, nearly twice that of neighboring communities; today it is more than $71,000, nearly double the state median.

That environment may have sheltered residents from the events of July 1970, when the arrests of three black men over a parking violation outside a bar in Michigan City set off two days of looting, vandalism and fires.

The Associated Press reported in a July 13, 1970, story that a police officer addressed one of those arrested as "boy" and that the man vowed to get some of his friends and "take this town apart."

The mayor declared a state of emergency, and Indiana National Guard troops were called in to restore order.

The News-Dispatch of Michigan City reported more than a dozen people were arrested for violating a curfew imposed to quell the violence. Those detained included several who worked in a job-training program for Bethlehem Steel's Burns Harbor plant, where the younger Roberts worked summers to help pay for Harvard.

David Myers, a University of Notre Dame sociology professor who studies race riots, said the uprising was typical of an industrial area that had seen an influx of blacks from the South.

"There were a lot of labor market tension and lots of unemployment issues that were driving unrest," he said.

Waters said many Long Beach residents were unaware of the disturbances until they picked up the Michigan City newspaper.

"We didn't even know it happened," she said.

That insulation extended to the all-boys Catholic boarding school Roberts attended in nearby LaPorte.

Bob MacLaverty, a longtime friend and Roberts' roommate at La Lumiere School, said students rarely discussed race and the civil rights movement.

The school admitted its first black students in 1970. By Roberts' graduation in 1973, about 7 percent of its roughly 100 students were minorities, he said.

Richard Freer, a professor of law at Emory University in Atlanta who has studied the Senate confirmation process, says Roberts' life experiences are relevant if they speak to his character and ability to be impartial. But he said there should be limits.

"I think it's legitimate to look at the past if it tells you anything about the person. But so what if there were race riots? Did he cause them? No. He was a 15-year-old kid. We don't shape the events that take place in our hometown."