Hayden Covington

Attorney and Watchtower Society Vice President

Jerry Bergman. Ph.D.

(Investigator 99, 2004 November)


My Background

My mother became a Witness around 1956 when I was still in elementary school. My father was not a Witness and the conflicts eventually resulted in my parents divorcing. My parents used to argue about religion a lot: my father was an agnostic to an atheist and deemed the whole religious worldview ludicrous. My two brothers and I followed mom and were involved in the Watchtower during much of our youth.

My religion caused me major problems, especially in school. During the flag salute I refused to stand, so it very quickly became known throughout the school that I was different. I was shoved against the wall by a teacher in third grade and told I was a communist and un-American because I never saluted the flag. In seventh grade, once I didn't stand up to salute and a group of kids around me also didn't stand up (I felt proud that I had some support). Of course, I don't know if they knew why I did not stand up (nor did I know why they did not stand up either).

Most students in my school didn't know the difference between Jehovah's Witnesses and Methodists, but often saw the world as divided into the religious and the non-religious. I studied a lot of scripture, and whenever a Bible issue came up in class I could at least talk about it. As a result, I was called Bible Bergman (I was also very poor and had to be frugal with money, so they also called me Bergy Jew.)
 

Hayden Covington

As I was growing up one of my heroes was Hayden Covington. He was a lawyer, the vice-president of the Watchtower Society, and one of the most famous Witnesses for decades. A Bethelite – resident at headquarters – from 1939 to 1963 during which time he took about 44 Witness cases to the supreme court, winning an amazing 85 percent of them.

Witnesses were commonly criticized because few were professionals, and Covington was someone we could look up to. I was raised in Royal Oak in a congregation in Berkeley, Michigan (later it moved to near Birmingham, Michigan). This was an unusual congregation, relatively wealthy compared to most. A doctor attended later, and Eugene Cyran, president of Modern Engineering Company in Berkeley, MI, went there for many years. Some of the members there knew several prominent Bethelites, so Covington came to our congregation several times (and his visit was a big deal). A very imposing man, not fat, but big (I would guess 6'3''), very confident, and very articulate.

Covington was going through some emotional problems then and I was teaching in psychology at the time (I wasn't licensed yet but was working under a psychologist who was). Consequently, he called me often and we talked about his concerns. As I was then collecting material on Watchtower legal cases, and Covington had file cabinets in his basement full of Watchtower legal cases, I thought I would visit him. I phoned and he said, "Sure, that would be great, drive on down." So, in 1974 my first wife (when you leave the Witnesses, divorce is common) and I visited him. Covington lived in a very well-kept, small brick house on Nichols Street in a lower-middle class neighborhood in Cincinnati, OH. One thing that impressed me was that he had hundreds of books, and at least thirty books on vocabulary building and how to use words effectively. This stuck out because most Witnesses own few books.

When I arrived, Covington was not home, so his wife went out to locate him. He was at a bar, drinking. When she brought him home, he was rather tipsy. This was disappointing to me because I was raised not to drink. Drinking was a problem among Witnesses, and I knew that it had been a problem with Covington (and was part of the reason why he left Bethel). His being tipsy was good in one way because he was very open with me and willing to talk about almost everything I asked him, and I took notes.

It became very clear that he idolized Rutherford. For example, I knew that Rutherford's wife had a stroke and that she wasn't in good health (she died in 1962) and I asked about the philandering rumors. Covington was laying down when I asked him about this and immediately sat up and was obviously very, very angry. He looked at me and said, "If your wife was paralyzed, what would you do?" I immediately knew I better not pursue that line of questioning. He seemed to acknowledge that Rutherford did have paramours, but defended him to the hilt. I also asked him "who wrote the articles in the Watchtower?" He answered Rutherford, who "had help, but alone was responsible."

He kept calling N.H. Knorr, the president then, a "cobra". When I asked him why he said, "Do you know what a cobra does? They'll slither behind you, and they'll strike viciously." It became apparent that he detested Knorr. This could be because his problems with the society began when Knorr became president. Covington claimed that he, Covington, had the votes to become president, but Knorr connived him out of the presidency.

I never had that much respect for Knorr (partly because Knorr only had a high school education) but, as Covington talked, I had more respect for Knorr. A conflict clearly existed between Knorr and Covington so I openly asked him, "Why didn't you like Knorr? What was the problem?" He never gave definitive evidence that Knorr had a legitimate problem except Covington's personality was very much like Rutherford's (and very much in contrast to Knorr's).

He did mention one incident. This involved a fight between Witnesses and Catholics at Madison Square Garden in 1939. He concluded that Knorr should have stayed and fought and "beat the s--- out of those bastards" (referring to Catholics). Knorr snuck out "like a coward" and was unwilling to physically fight. My thought was, I would have done exactly what Knorr did and not hung around and fought. Knorr wanted the Society to become more respectable, and so there was a basic conflict of goals, and how to achieve those goals. The average Witness had much respect for Covington but, as time went on, I lost respect. One reason was I felt to beat up your critics was not the way to deal with problems.

Covington had no qualms about fighting physically. He said, "If someone looks at me the wrong way I'll beat the s--- out of him." He was a fighter, and that is one reason why he did so well in court. Covington freely used profanity, which could have been due to his Texas upbringing (his father was a Texas Ranger). This surprised me: Witnesses usually don't swear. He was good with words, was very aggressive in court, and loved a good fight. Part of his downfall was, as the Society won more and more cases, there was less and less need to fight. In the early 1960s about all there was left was the pretty straightforward draft cases. His aggressiveness was less and less needed by the Society. Therefore he began drinking as he became more unhappy. Eventually, he was asked to leave the Society headquarters.

I was concerned not only about his experiences, but about the early history of the Society, and their controversies. It turned out Covington knew little about their early history. He knew a lot about the court cases and could go into detail about what kind of people they were, what they did for a living, and their legal conflicts. But, when asked about Russell, the miracle wheat controversy and such, he said "I don't know much about that." His life was the law as much as it was the Witnesses, but the law was more important than doctrine.

We talked about scriptures, but his interest was more in the scriptures that related to the law. In one interview he talked about when he first became a Witness and why. He said he did so because he was a rebel; he wanted to fight against something. I think if the Witnesses did not come along he would have joined some other group and fought for them. He was a crusader that needed a cause to fight for, and the Watchtower was the cause he found. The Witnesses were heavily persecuted back then, and were in the news a lot. He joined up and said "I'm going to fight with these people and we're going to win."

I also talked to his wife during my visit. A very attractive, articulate woman, I was impressed with her. Their daughter, a very petite redhead, later went to law school. They had severe marital problems and later separated (I perceived that she was a lot more like Knorr). Some people you are really impressed with after only fifteen minutes. She was that kind of person. She had a good handle on both his, and the Society's, problems. I mentioned to Hayden that I was very impressed with her, and that I thought she was a good wife. He said something disparaging like: "Well, she's a woman, she's supposed to take care of things," clearly demeaning his wife. He felt she was a good wife because that is what a woman is supposed to do.

She was resentful partly because, after they left Bethel, he couldn't make a living. Many assume that he had his own local law firm when he was disfellowshipped in 1963. I asked her about this because he was in the news a lot due to representing Cassius Clay (they had a falling out, and Cassius Clay never paid him for his work). She felt resentful because he couldn't make it on his own as a lawyer. She took care of the family and worked full time (in the pressroom of a Cincinnati newspaper for over 20 years).

Her feeling was, "Here I am taking care of the kids, working full time to support the family and taking care of you and you spend your time drinking." She was very resentful, but willing to do it. She felt, "You could at least get a job, any job." He was not too proud to get any job, but just couldn't get along with people. He would get a job at a law firm and handle a case or two, but would soon be let go. He had so much respect for Rutherford that he would do whatever Rutherford asked and take anything that Rutherford gave him. But for most anybody else, he couldn't.

She claimed he would always blame his problems on others; it was always everybody else's fault, Knorr's fault, the lawyer's fault, etc. He wasn't very diplomatic, but shined in court: there he could be very aggressive, but that kind of temperament doesn't help one do well outside of a court. His wife thought that maybe I could help him (I was working as a therapist at a clinic then). His wife and family stayed with the Witnesses even after his disfellowshipping and, as far as I know, are still Witnesses. They were married for a long time, and my guess is she would have stuck with him through almost anything (but she was very discouraged that he couldn't support the family and about his drinking).

I began to feel sorry for this man that I once looked up to. I remember driving home with my wife after our visit feeling very depressed. He was not a God, but a sorry man. I still admired him for what he did, but I was very disappointed. My visit was the end of the end for me as a Witness. I had major questions before, but afterwards I, without a doubt, knew the Society was not God's organization. I soon left (I was not disfellowshipped, but left).

At the very end of his life Covington hit bottom. He drank and drank and ended up with health problems, and realized that, if he didn't change his life, he was going to die. About four years after I had first visited him he died (his memorial was at the Kelly Assembly Hall in California on November 28, 1978).

At that time, too, many articles came out about his work and what he accomplished with the lawsuits that the Society had fought and won. His cases have a far-reaching effect on the media today because the Watchtower cases extended the concept of free distribution. Without these cases, we wouldn't have the Internet or media freedom that we know today (the fight to legalize pornography also relied heavily on Watchtower cases).

Covington realized he could live on his laurels and reclaim some of the prestige that he had, but he had to change his life, and so did. Some of his friends felt sorry for him, and helped him, and he was eventually reinstated very close to the end of his life (although when I talked to him he was disfellowshipped).

He missed the fighting and the court battles. Winning for him was losing because when he won his purpose in life was gone. If he could have become an attorney for the ACLU and continued to fight he might have been ok. He had a lot of contact with the ACLU, a lot of correspondence back and forth with their lawyers. He lost his calling and couldn't find another, whether civil rights or something similar. Representing Cassius Clay could have been a door to civil rights work, but Covington never did enter that door. I don't know how much Witness teaching he accepted, but the Witnesses believe all other religions are evil (although they have less antagonism toward Methodists because some early adherents were Methodists and some Methodist ministers became prominent in the Watchtower in Russell's day).

The Watchtower used to prep us, even telling us what to do and say when we were arrested. We actually had mock arrest trials on Thursdays at the service meeting. They stressed: be calm and cool, be polite, and don't get upset. Let them abuse you. This, of course, is good advice; don't give them an excuse to abuse you, but meekly submit and be arrested. Politely try to explain what we are doing, our reasons, and the law (we had cards they would give us with court cases listed). Then call an attorney (we had a list of attorneys who were sympathetic), and find someone to set bail. Once we had a couple of brothers with military uniforms come up on the platform to arrest us.

Many attorneys were sympathetic to the Watchtower and the Witnesses and some Witnesses were attorneys. In fact, we had an organization of professionals who used to meet in Chicago every year until the Society stopped it (they discourage people from getting together outside of formal Society events). There were about 50 Witness medical doctors in the United States, and about 300 attorneys (there are probably many more now). They discourage going to college, but becoming an attorney was acceptable.

My wife and I once stayed at the home of Frank Mott-Trille, a Witness attorney in Canada. His daughter and one of his other kids became attorneys because that was an acceptable career route (although Frank has left the Watchtower since then). Studying law does not involve studying things that may contradict the Watchtower like religion, or creation and evolution. You are not apt to fall out of the truth because of learning secular university educators' philosophies. The Watchtower is very negative toward education (the first area I got into trouble over was because I went to college). I was shunned by some long before I left them when I was a college student even though I was a very dedicated, committed, Witness. I collected their literature to be able to defend the Watchtower. I was a Pioneer, had a very short assignment at Bethel, and did some work for the writing staff (I still have the correspondence from them).

Covington looked for cases and people who could win. They would interview a person and conclude, "He's not quite right. He loses his cool and is not very articulate." They wanted people who had good reputations in the community, who were store owners, or shopkeepers that had a good chance of winning. They tried to eliminate all extraneous things that are brought up in court cases. They wanted women, especially presentable, attractive women who were articulate and had children who they felt would elicit sympathy from the jury. They wanted jury trials so they could play on the juries emotions and argue that the victim was just a mother doing "God's will." Most all cases were white (they thought they may lose if the Witness involved was Black).

When they lost a case, they would analyze it, learn from it, and then try not to make the same mistakes in the future. They wrote letters to the local congregations, asking, "If any case comes up, be sure and let us know." Even if they did not defend a case, they wanted to be aware of it when looking for test cases. They had a lot of cases to pick from, so they would evaluate 300 cases, narrow it down to five, then down to one.

Headquarters would send people into areas they knew could cause problems. One case I remembered was a large Catholic population where there had been opposition, and a priest that was an active Witness opposer. They would say to us, "You ought to go into this territory, it hasn't been preached in a while." Decisions about which communities to target were made at Bethel by the leadership and there was very little questioning by the Witnesses about where they were asked to go.

No one said, "they are sending us in here so we can get arrested" and if someone would have said that, the Society responded: "This is God's will, and God is fighting this battle. We are just His instruments." But they wanted to get the right people, not those that could mess up the case. From prepping the Witnesses going into the field, to choosing the location, it was all planned by Covington.
 
 

The Result of Leaving

When you leave, you often alienate your friends and your family. My marriage fell apart (my first wife had a hard time with my questions). As a result, when I left, I was largely on my own. The people I was raised with and knew all my life, other Witnesses, would no longer talk to me. This was a very traumatic period in my life. I was teaching at that time at Bowling Green State University and they made it clear, in no uncertain terms, that they did not appreciate my involvement with the Watchtower and openly terminated me on the grounds of religion.

The University lambasted my Witness affiliation although by that time I had left them for several years. Their feeling was that my leaving was a ruse: I was pretending not to be a Witness and when I was tenured I would go back. The NEA investigated my case, ruled I was illegally fired, and filed a lawsuit. The religion concerns were openly talked about both by my supporters and my detractors. In page after page of their testimony the faculty discussed my religion and my being a Witness. In the depositions they said they knew I was a Jehovah's Witness the first year I was there.

Conversely, I can understand the antagonism that they have in academia against the Watchtower. Their feeling is that anyone in that religion is incompetent. They were concerned that I was proselytizing in class, but admitted that they had no evidence that I did. They were concerned about the handouts that I used, such as one on the flag salute. As a Witness, I was a proselytizer, not aggressively, but I brought it up. If someone would say something about world conditions, I'd say: "I read about that in this magazine, The Watchtower. I'll get you a copy for you." I was not blatant, but did bring it up at times, which got me in trouble. I never brought it up with students because I didn't think it was appropriate to talk about my personal beliefs in the classroom.

We would talk about the flag salute issue in education classes every now and then, but the students could not understand why it was an issue. They are a different generation and most students were not concerned about it one way or another as my generation was. At the trial the judge indicated that he was going to rule in my favor, but after the trial he ignored all of the evidence and rubber stamped the University's allegations.

After I left BGSU, religion still came up on job interviews. The school would call BGSU, and they brought up the religious issue (this is ironic, because I began to seriously question the Watchtower before 1973 when I was first hired at BGSU). I physically left the Witnesses in 1975, but did not formally resign until 1980.

They do not appreciate my Witness background where I teach now either. I have been a Methodist for almost 20 years (and a lay speaker in the Methodist Church), so, when they asked about my Witness background, I responded, "Look, I'm a Methodist now."

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