I was saddened to learn of Rep. Bill Crawford’s death last week. I had the opportunity — and pleasure — to interview Rep. Crawford this past summer for research for a new book chapter on The Story of Crawford v. Marion County Election Board, which will appear next year in Election Law Stories (Foundation Press 2016). Rep. Crawford, the lead plaintiff in the voter ID case that went to the Supreme Court, was gracious, generous with his time, humble, and extremely helpful for my research. He left quite a legacy.
For those who want to learn more about him, below are several (draft) paragraphs from the forthcoming chapter that tell the story of his life and his involvement in the voter ID case.
It is no surprise that William (Bill) Crawford became the lead plaintiff in the fight over Indiana’s new restrictive photo ID requirement, particularly given the racial overtones of the debate and the argument that racial minorities would suffer most under the law. Crawford was a long-serving Democratic member of the Indiana House of Representatives who represented the 98th District, an area notorious for being one of the poorest in the state. He retired in 2012 after being elected to twenty consecutive terms, leaving the Indiana House after forty years as the longest-serving black state lawmaker in U.S. history.
Crawford did not foresee dedicating his life to politics. Upon graduation from high school, the lifelong Indianapolis resident joined the U.S. Navy, a period of his life that left him “proud to serve his country, but affected by the blatant racism that was still prevalent in the military at the time.” Although the U.S. military was officially desegregated in 1948, opportunities for minority advancement remained minimal when Crawford joined in 1954. Two formative experiences involving race occurred during Crawford’s service. Once, while leading a ship, Crawford “pulled the sleeves on his uniform up to the elbow, in violation of official protocol,” and two white men of lesser rank working with Crawford commanded him to roll them down, an order that Crawford refused. As a result, a Navy officer ordered a court-martial for Crawford in August 1955 and handed down a thirty-day stint in the brig in South Carolina – a sentence Crawford never served.
A few years later, Crawford, who had advanced to the rank of a Radarman Third Class, traveled to Norfolk, Virginia to sit for the second-class status exam. Prior to the assessment, an officer remarked to Crawford, “I don’t think blacks can lead whites . . . . I’m not going to allow you to take the test.” Crawford appealed the rejection to a captain, who agreed that the decision was wrong but supported the offending officer’s refusal anyway. Crawford left the Navy shortly after this incident, claiming that his experience in the military and the racism he encountered “helped frame [his] commitment to protest” and “taught [him] discrimination [and] . . . . the rules of the game and how to fight and that fighting is done in the right way.”
After leaving the U.S. Navy in 1958, Crawford joined the U.S. Postal Service, where he was in charge of handling sensitive cargo and mail transported by train. Crawford was still working as a mail carrier in 1968 when civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. King’s death was “a very traumatic experience” for Crawford, and the then thirty-two-year-old military veteran, who was simultaneously working and attending the Indiana College of Business and Technology under the GI Bill, dropped out of school and left the post office to become involved in various community organizations. Activist Charles “Snookie” Hendricks hired Crawford to work at the Radical Black Action Bookstore, which sold materials aimed at empowering the black community.
Additionally, Crawford joined an urban union of black activists, through which he became acquainted with then-state representative and future Congresswoman Julia Carson. In 1972, on the last day of filing for candidacy, Carson called Crawford to ask him to run for state representative because a lawyer slotted to run for one of the three seats given to Indianapolis districts at that time had backed out. Crawford agreed and was elected to the Indiana House after running on a platform of accountability, justice, and neighborhood development.
Shortly after taking office in 1973, Crawford was assigned to the budget-writing House Ways and Means Committee. Although Crawford’s primary role on this committee was to protect the state’s fiscal health, he focused in particular on meeting the needs of the state’s underserved populations. For instance, he was proud of his ability to direct the allocation of over $30 million in state funds to research minority health issues.
Outside of his appointment to the Ways and Means Committee, Crawford made various other contributions to minority groups and other underrepresented constituencies. In the 1970s, Crawford secured restitution from the state budget for two men who served time in prison after being wrongly convicted. In 1976, Crawford introduced legislation that called for the creation of district-specific seats on the Board of Commissioners for Indianapolis Public Schools. Crawford’s law resulted in the board having two at-large seats and five from districts around the city – which had the effect of providing greater geographic diversity and more opportunities for minority candidates to win a seat. In 1987, Crawford championed a bill that instituted a minority teacher scholarship program. Two years later he authored legislation that created the Low Income Housing Trust Fund. In 1993, he succeeded in passing the Minority Teacher’s Scholarship Fund, which provided a grant of up to $16,000 for African-American and Latino teachers who agreed to work locally in Indiana. Crawford also authored legislation, of which he is “most proud,” that helped make Indiana the thirteenth state to prohibit the execution of mentally ill individuals.
In addition to his legislative duties, Crawford also led major cultural institutions, twice serving as the president of the Indiana Black Expo. He was also the manager of outreach for Ivy Tech Community College of Indiana. Ivy Tech provides higher education opportunities to non-traditional students who do not immediately go to college after high school, minority groups, and those with financial difficulties. It now educates more African-American students than any other institution in Indiana; over half of all African-Americans who attend post-secondary school in Indiana go to an Ivy Tech campus. Crawford believed that education was important to civil rights and that “empowerment of people is the greatest thing you can do for economic development.” As Jeff Terp, a Senior Vice President at Ivy Tech, noted, “He sees every day that there are those that are poor and minority that don’t have equal access, and he want[s] equal access.”
With respect to the photo ID law, Crawford, as a civil rights advocate, considered Indiana’s bill to be “patently offensive.” He agreed to serve as the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit because, as he put it, “I was willing and involved in the debate in the House. So I was simply the right person at the time.” During the litigation itself, Crawford remained engaged by rallying support and finding individuals and organizations that would file amicus briefs on his behalf.
As Joe Simpson, the other lead plaintiff, said of Crawford’s involvement, “Someone had to step up to the plate, and Representative Crawford was the right person to do it. He had no fear of speaking up for those who could not speak for themselves.”