Justice officials declined to say whether Mr. Holder or other senior Justice officials became involved in the case, saying they don’t discuss internal deliberations.
The civil suit filed Jan. 7 identified the three men as members of the Panthers and said they wore military-style uniforms, black berets, combat boots, battle-dress pants, black jackets with military-style insignias and were armed with “a dangerous weapon”and used racial slurs and insults to scare would-be voters and those there to assist them at the Philadelphia polling location on Nov. 4.
The complaint said the three men engaged in “coercion, threats and intimidation, … racial threats and insults, … menacing and intimidating gestures, … and movements directed at individuals who were present to vote.” It said that unless prohibited by court sanctions, they would “continued to violate … the Voting Rights Act by continuing to direct intimidation, threats and coercion at voters and potential voters, by again deploying uniformed and armed members at the entrance to polling locations in future elections, both in Philadelphia and throughout the country.”
To support its evidence, the government had secured an affidavit from Bartle Bull, a longtime civil rights activist and former aide to Sen. Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign. Mr. Bull said in a sworn statement dated April 7 that he was serving in November as a credentialed poll watcher in Philadelphia when he saw the three uniformed Panthers confront and intimidate voters with a nightstick.
Inexplicably, the government did not enter the affidavit in the court case, according to the files.
“In my opinion, the men created an intimidating presence at the entrance to a poll,” he declared. “In all my experience in politics, in civil rights litigation and in my efforts in the 1960s to secure the right to vote in Mississippi … I have never encountered or heard of another instance in the United States where armed and uniformed men blocked the entrance to a polling location.”
Mr. Bull said the “clear purpose” of what the Panthers were doing was to “intimidate voters with whom they did not agree.” He also said he overheard one of the men tell a white poll watcher: “You are about to be ruled by the black man, cracker.”
He called their conduct an “outrageous affront to American democracy and the rights of voters to participate in an election without fear.” He said it was a “racially motivated effort to limit both poll watchers aiding voters, as well as voters with whom the men did not agree.”
The three men named in the complaint - New Black Panther Chairman Malik Zulu Shabazz, Minister King Samir Shabazz and Jerry Jackson - refused to appear in court to answer the accusations over a near-five month period, court records said.
Justice Department Voting Rights Section Attorney J. Christian Adams complained in one court filing about the defendants’ failure to appear or to file any pleadings in the case, arguing that Mr. Jackson was “not an infant, nor is he an incompetent person as he appears capable of managing his own affairs, nor is he in the military service of the United States.”
Court records show that as late as May 5, the Justice Department was still considering an order by U.S. District Judge Stewart Dalzell in Philadelphia to seek judgments, or sanctions, against the three Panthers because of their failure to appear.
But 10 days later, the department reversed itself and filed a notice of voluntary dismissal from the complaint for Malik Zulu Shabazz and Mr. Jackson.
That same day, the department asked for the default judgment against King Samir Shabazz, but limited the penalty to an order that he not display a “weapon within 100 feet of any open polling location on any election day in the city of Philadelphia” until Nov. 15, 2012.
Malik Zulu Shabazz is a Washington, D.C., resident.
Mr. Jackson was an elected member of Philadelphia’s 14th Ward Democratic Committee, and was credentialed to be at the polling place last Nov. 4 as an official Democratic Party polling observer, according to the Philadelphia City Commissioner’s Office.