He became a civil rights pioneer at age 7. He excelled academically at two of the South’s finest universities. A law practice led him into a political career that gave him national stature. His name appeared on short lists for a Cabinet appointment, maybe even the Democratic nomination for vice president.
“I have lived the American dream,” Bill Campbell said last month.
Exactly two weeks later, the former Atlanta mayor stood before a federal judge, answering to charges that he operated City Hall as a criminal enterprise, facing years in prison unless he convinces a jury that he is not guilty.
But when federal authorities announced Monday that a grand jury had indicted Campbell on racketeering and corruption charges, the only surprise was in the timing. Campbell, who was mayor from 1994 to 2002, had been the target of an intensive federal investigation for more than four years. Authorities looked into his travels with friends, some of whom were city contractors; his fondness for gambling; his penchant for expensive suits. One after another of Campbell’s associates went to prison as the investigation inched ever closer to its ultimate target.
Still, the indictment underscored the breathtakingly downward trajectory of Campbell’s public life. A man who socialized with sports stars, rap moguls and even a president had to submit Monday to the indignities of being fingerprinted and posing for a booking photograph.
In many ways, the criminal case reflects a tension that often has enveloped Campbell. He integrated the public schools in Raleigh, his hometown, but had to do it alone, while enduring the nastiest of racist taunts. He rose to the highest political office in Atlanta, but before he was sworn in, an airport contractor alleged to federal authorities that Campbell had accepted bribes as a city councilman.
Throughout the current investigation and again on Monday, Campbell, 51, denied wrongdoing by aggressively questioning the motivations of his accusers. He dismissed as “lies” the entire 48-page, seven-count indictment, including the portions that originated with friends who had to choose between testifying and facing prosecution themselves. Campbell and his supporters contend that one persistent thread running through his adult life, the allegation of corruption, is the result of another, racism.
Federal prosecutors declined to comment on Campbell’s assertion that racism played into their investigation, which began under a U.S. attorney and a special agent in charge of the Atlanta FBI office who are African-American.
Nevertheless, as former Mayor Andrew Young once told Atlanta magazine, Campbell may have “a legitimate chip on his shoulder.”
The question now is whether Campbell has used it to rationalize acts that prosecutors describe as criminal.
On an overcast, blustery Saturday morning, the native returned.
It was commencement day in May 2002 at Shaw University, a small, historically black college in downtown Raleigh. Bill Campbell’s maternal grandparents both had received degrees from Shaw in 1912, and when civil rights protests formed on its shady campus during his childhood, Campbell and his family usually had been there.
“You are a favorite son of Raleigh,” the school’s president, Talbert O. Shaw, told Campbell, back home as the commencement speaker. “As a boy, you were so brave.”
As a boy, William Craig Campbell had become an icon of Raleigh’s civil rights movement a few blocks up Person Street on a hot autumn day 42 years earlier.
His father, Ralph, a janitor, was president of the Raleigh chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. His mother, June, was renowned for serving meals on her glass-topped oval dining table to the men who plotted the integration of North Carolina’s capital.
A key element in their strategy: young Bill.
In the fall of 1960, when Bill would enter the second grade, 30 black children were preparing to enroll in Raleigh’s all-white public schools. But as the start of school neared, and the prospects of intervention by the Ku Klux Klan appeared to increase, the parents of 29 of the children backed out.
Ralph Campbell stood firm. In September 1960, he sent his 7-year-old son to a nondescript brick building two blocks from the state Capitol. “Murphey Public School” was engraved in stone above the front door, but only the white public had been allowed there. A newspaper photograph taken that first day shows Bill, dressed in a plaid shirt and short pants, grasping his mother’s hand as he walks home from school. White parents and children stare at them from the edge of the sidewalk, and an angry-faced boy in a parked car yells something through the passenger window.
Others spat at the little boy and his mother, Bill Campbell would recall years later. News accounts told of a woman who noticed his light complexion and shouted, “What white man is your daddy?”
That night, Ralph Campbell heard a voice over the telephone claim his house was going to be blown up. But he continued to send Bill to Murphey. For five lonely years, the child remained the sole black student in Raleigh’s white schools.
Although the taunts never stopped, Bill eventually began walking home alone. Much later, his mother, who died Aug. 19, would tell an interviewer about the evening the boy talked about a white woman who sat on her porch every day and watched him pass by.
“Nigger,” she would call out, “why do you want to go to school with those children?”
Those who know Bill Campbell suggest that what he endured as he integrated Raleigh’s schools defined how he views the world, which he divides neatly into friends and enemies. When close friends faced federal criminal charges near the end of his tenure as mayor, Campbell defended them as victims of racist investigators. When a group of mostly white business people challenged Campbell’s affirmative action policies in court, he compared them to robed Klansmen.
The stress of being the only black child in school also may have affected the relationship between Ralph Campbell and his third son. The father died in 1983, long before the son’s greatest successes.
“I was sacrificed in order to change a troubled society,” Bill Campbell told his hometown newspaper, The News & Observer, in 1993. “My father recognized that a sacrifice had to be made. Somebody had to go first. It was an unbelievable commitment, to sacrifice his own child so society could be better.”
“There’s no doubt my father was an incredibly strong person,” Campbell told the Raleigh newspaper six years later. “In my entire life, which encompasses an awful lot of political and civil rights leaders, I’ve never known a person that was as strong as my father.”
The son’s will grew as strong as the father’s.
When Bill Campbell graduated from high school in 1971, with near-perfect grades, his father wanted him to enroll at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, a few miles from home. He refused. He wanted to attend Stanford University in California, seemingly as far from Raleigh as he could get. A friend from Raleigh interceded, suggesting he join him at Vanderbilt University in Nashville. The friend, Larry Wallace, would remain in Bill Campbell’s life for decades.
Campbell thrived at Vanderbilt, graduating with honors in three years. For law school, he chose Duke. It was close to home, close to the battles his father still waged in Raleigh. But the return to North Carolina was temporary.
During the summer between his second and third years at Duke, Campbell clerked at an Atlanta law firm then known as Kilpatrick & Cody. The first week, when he attended a dinner at the home of one of the firm’s partners, Campbell met one of his heroes: Andrew Young.
“I was just amazed at the ease with which these civil rights giants moved through the city,” Campbell would recall more than 15 years later.
After finishing law school in 1977, Campbell took a job at Kilpatrick & Cody, but left after two years to join the U.S. Justice Department’s antitrust division in Atlanta. He left that job in 1981 and joined another law firm. That fall, at age 28, Campbell was elected to his first political post, a seat on the Atlanta City Council. He would represent several emerging intown neighborhoods, including Inman Park, where he and his new wife, the former Sharon Tapscott, bought a home and raised their two children.
As a City Council member, the articulate, telegenic Campbell attracted national attention. In 1986, The New Republic magazine described him as “a rising young black city councilman.”
On the council, Campbell promoted neighborhood-friendly legislation. He fought the Presidential Parkway before it was downsized to Freedom Parkway. He pushed a ban on discrimination in private clubs. He opposed one ethics bill for city officials, but helped write another.
By the time he ran for mayor in 1993, trying to succeed Maynard Jackson, Atlanta’s first black mayor, Campbell’s own ethics had come into question.
His name surfaced in a federal investigation of payoffs for concessions contracts at the city-owned Hartsfield International Airport. A key witness alleged in court he had paid bribes to Campbell. But Campbell denied the accusation and was never charged.
‘Forces of evil’
With Jackson’s endorsement, Campbell easily defeated former Fulton County Commission Chairman Michael Lomax in the 1993 election. The Summer Olympics were coming to Atlanta in 1996, and Campbell’s national profile was rising. He seemed a likely candidate for a Cabinet appointment in the second Clinton administration, and some political observers suggested that, as an articulate black Southern politician, he might make an ideal running mate for Al Gore in 2000.
Campbell defeated City Council President Marvin Arrington in a runoff to win a second term as mayor in 1997. But more questions about his ethics arose, and Campbell’s political career began to unravel.
News stories reported that federal authorities were investigating possible City Hall corruption. Campbell responded by receding into an inner circle of advisers and friends, including city contractors with whom he traveled to casinos and prizefights.
His staff routinely refused to release his schedule, and his public appearances became infrequent. He rarely gave interviews, cutting off all contact with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He used radio interviews with friendly hosts, such as V-103’s Frank Ski, to speak directly to his supporters. And as the allegations mounted, critics claimed, he was quick to describe anyone who challenged him as a racist.
Whether Campbell truly considered his detractors to be racists, or whether it was a ploy to silence them, is debatable, acquaintances say.
“I think at least that may be some core belief,” said Angelo Fuster, who was Campbell’s communications director for two years in his first term. “But some element of that is self-serving. It’s a way of dealing with an issue without really dealing with it.”
The mayor cited racism so frequently that even Young, whose presence at that long-ago dinner party had so intrigued the young Campbell, publicly admonished him for blaming race exclusively for problems with more complex roots.
Gambling became a frequent diversion for Campbell. More than one Atlanta resident returned from casinos in Las Vegas or the Caribbean with reports of having seen Campbell play blackjack, sometimes at tables reserved for $500-a-hand betting. The federal indictment lists 14 gambling trips that Campbell allegedly took at the expense of city contractors.
In the fall of 2000, with the corruption investigation intensifying, Campbell made a particularly high wager. In a series of public remarks laced with strong racial rhetoric, he tried to call the government’s bluff.
At a news conference, he accused federal authorities of asking “racially provocative and politically motivated questions” because of his support for affirmative action. In a radio interview, he described federal agents as “the forces of evil.” He reminded listeners that the FBI had targeted the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. In a rare personal reference, Campbell invoked the memory of his father, who had brought him into the struggle for civil rights four decades earlier. The FBI also had investigated his father, Campbell said, “so I’m used to it.”
Campbell’s defiance hardly deterred the investigation. Authorities secured convictions against 10 people—former city officials and contractors who did business with the Campbell administration.
Among them: Larry Wallace, the old Raleigh friend who had made peace between Campbell and his father long before he became Campbell’s top aide as mayor.
When Campbell left office in January 2002, the city budget was $35 million in the red and headed toward an $80 million deficit. His successor, Mayor Shirley Franklin, who pushed adoption of tough new ethics rules early in her term, was forced to raise taxes.
After two decades in politics, Campbell found another forum to air his views: a daily talk show on Atlanta radio station WAOK-AM. He used the program to assail his political critics, including Franklin at times, and to decry what he described as insidious racism.
As mayor, his words carried force. As a talk show host, they fell on few ears. In the final ratings period before he left the station, Campbell’s show finished in a four-way tie at the bottom of the metro Atlanta market.
Campbell left broadcasting in early 2003 and took a job with a Florida-based law firm. Campbell and his wife sold their house in Inman Park and moved to Florida. On July 26, just five weeks before he was indicted, Campbell was licensed to practice law in Florida.
When he left Atlanta, Campbell’s friends said the investigation had overshadowed his accomplishments as mayor: a reduction in crime, an overhaul of public housing and a surge in urban development.
As the indictment neared, supporters and detractors alike lamented Campbell’s fall from grace.
The Rev. Cal Merrell, who stood alongside Campbell at a recent news conference, said the former mayor had made “human mistakes.”
“There have been times when he didn’t seek advice from his predecessors,” Merrell said. “Your predecessors are the people who tell you, ‘Wait, don’t do that.’ “
Radio talk show host Neal Boortz, a one-time supporter of Campbell’s who became one of his most vocal critics, said he found it difficult to explain why Campbell found so much trouble despite possessing great intelligence and charisma.
“It’s a sad story,” Boortz said. “Of all the mayors I’ve seen in this town, this man had incredible potential. You get so upset when somebody with that much potential throws it away.”