Photo by Sam Hodgson
County Supervisor Bill Horn
Statement: “During the civil rights movement I worked for Ralph Abernathy and went to jail over the rights of the minority,” County Supervisor Bill Horn said June 28 at a public board meeting.
Determination: Huckster Propaganda
Analysis: Like government agencies across the nation, San Diego County is debating how to redraw the political boundaries of its elected representatives, the five county supervisors.
The county must shift its boundaries so each supervisor represents an equal number of residents. Unlike other agencies, the supervisors themselves have the final say in the new boundaries.
On June 28, the supervisors examined three proposals to redraw their districts and got public input. Speaker after speaker said none of the proposals were acceptable, complaining that each would dilute the voting power of racial and ethnic minorities. They accused the supervisors — five white people — of gerrymandering to safeguard their own reelections and violating the civil rights of minorities in the process.
The supervisors moved forward with one of the three proposals and directed county staff to review the civil rights concerns before the final vote. But the criticism irked Supervisor Bill Horn, a conservative who represents the county’s northernmost district.
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“During the civil rights movement I worked for Ralph Abernathy and went to jail over the rights of the minority … to be heard,” Horn told the audience. “Now I don’t take offense here ’cause you can speak whatever you want about us, but I just want you to know my background and the fact that I consider every citizen, no matter what the color might be, an equal right here.”
His claim got traction. The Union-Tribune repeated his account in a story about the redistricting meeting, quoting Horn as saying he had been arrested during a civil rights protest in the early 1960s.
Horn has repeated the story or a similar version for at least the past decade.
“From 1962 through 1964, Horn was a student organizer and civil rights activist for C.O.R.E. (the Congress of Racial Equality) and was arrested during a protest march in 1963,” his campaign website for county supervisor said in 2002, according to internet archives.
So we asked Horn if he had a written record of his arrest. No, he said in an interview. San Diego police never handcuffed him, fingerprinted him or booked him into a jail.
While a student at San Diego State University in the early 1960s, Horn joined the San Diego chapter of C.O.R.E. to protest for civil rights. Horn said he joined fellow members of C.O.R.E. for a downtown protest outside the Bank of America, which employed few African-American people at the time. Similar protests against the company erupted across the country in 1964.
Horn said another protester threw a brick through the bank’s window, so San Diego police detained each protester for questioning and took them to a police station. “We went voluntarily,” he said. “We were never jailed. We were just taken in.”
The frustrating part, he said, was that police made the protesters walk a long way back to their cars afterwards.
So at the June 28 meeting, Horn said he went to jail for civil rights. But in the interview, Horn said he never went to jail. After we asked Horn about the discrepancy, he acknowledged making an error at redistricting meeting:
I was being challenged as a racist and unfortunately I said ‘jailed’ when I should have said ‘detained’. It was an honest mistake. I was a college student during a turbulent time in our nation’s history and being detained for doing the right thing is something I will never apologize for.
His mistake wasn’t isolated, though. He has repeated that claim. And other parts of his June 28 story don’t check out. He said he worked for Abernathy, a close aide to Martin Luther King Jr. at the time. But Abernathy never led C.O.R.E. efforts in California.
Brian Mclaughlin, a C.O.R.E. spokesman, said Abernathy may have been a member of the group but “he did not do any work for us in California or anywhere that we know as a C.O.R.E. officer.” Abernathy primarily fought segregation in the South with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
John Culea, a spokesman for Horn, said the supervisor knew of only two men who could corroborate the story. They were Hal Brown, chairman of the local C.O.R.E. chapter at the time, and Rosey Grier, the former football star who went on to become an aide and bodyguard to Robert F. Kennedy. Culea wrote:
[Horn] knows that Brown and former NFL star Rosey Grier came to his office many years ago to reminisce about the incident. The Supervisor has a football in his office with the faded signature of Grier. Unfortunately, both of those men have passed away, and short of a séance, there’s no way to confirm with them the events of a half century ago.
That was news to them.
“I’ll be darned,” Brown said. “Something’s going on because I certainly haven’t passed away yet.”
Both men are alive and well. Brown, 77, lives in Del Cerro and Grier, 78, lives in Los Angeles.
Brown confirmed that Horn attended C.O.R.E.-organized protests but didn’t know whether he had been arrested. He recalled that some San Diego State students had been arrested, but didn’t know whether Horn was among them. He also confirmed that Abernathy hadn’t worked here. “Ralph Abernathy had nothing to do with California,” he said. “He wasn’t affiliated at all with our organization.”
Grier said in an interview that he didn’t participate in any civil rights protests with Horn during the 1960s. He was a defensive lineman with the Los Angeles Rams at the time. “I did not know him at all,” Grier said. “I signed autographed footballs all the time. Perhaps someone introduced me to him.”
Culea, Horn’s spokesman, said in an email the supervisor had not distinguished the difference between being detained for questioning and being arrested on suspicion of a crime. “Any intervention by the police can feel like an arrest,” he wrote.
Horn believed he had been working for Abernathy, Culea said. “However, that is the trouble with memories,” he said. “They fade.”
Our definition for Huckster Propaganda says the statement must be inaccurate, and it’s reasonable to expect the person making the statement knew it was inaccurate and made it anyways to gain an advantage. Horn’s statement fits the definition, which we reserve for the worst factual errors.
The supervisor clearly knew he didn’t go to jail during the Bank of America protests, and said he had to rebut civil rights advocates who cast the supervisors as uncaring of minorities. He participated in the protests but overstated the sacrifice he made decades ago.
His reference to Abernathy, the renowned advocate who fought segregation in the South, further exaggerated his involvement in San Diego’s protests. His relationship with Abernathy appears to have been symbolic at best.
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