As if we didn’t get enough of the moronic circus that was the O. J. Simpson trial the first time around, now we’ve been forced to observe its tenth anniversary. But does it really deserve notice?
After the verdict came down, on October 3, 1995, I remember my dad, who grew up black in Alabama during the 1920s and 1930s and who witnessed more than his share of racism up close and personal, saying, “Now they know how we feel.” This was in reference to the absurd trials, held mostly in the first half of the twentieth century, that saw Klansmen and the like walk off scot-free from murder indictments, the blood still fresh on their hands. One in particular springs to mind, since it occurred 40 years nearly to the month before the O.J. trial.
In August of 1955, Emmett Till, a 15-year old black boy from Chicago, whistled at a white woman named Carolyn Bryant in a grocery store in Money, Mississippi. He was lynched by the woman’s husband, Roy Bryant, and an associate, J. W. Milam, and then thrown into the Tallahatchie River. That September an all-white jury found the two men innocent, even though eyewitnesses and evidence said otherwise. Afterward, Bryant and Milam lit cigarettes and posed for pictures with their wives outside the courthouse. When I look at the images of both events, O.J.’s smiling face after his acquittal doesn’t look much different to me from Bryant’s and Milam’s did after they were found innocent (maybe O.J. looked a little more relieved and a little less smug, but not by much). His announcement that he would spare nothing in finding the real killer was ugly in its lack of sincerity and conviction, but not nearly as criminal as Bryant and Milam, after their acquittal, bragging about how they had killed Till in the January 24, 1956, issue of Look magazine.
My mother, a white woman who was born in Nazi Germany two weeks before Hitler invaded Poland (she will kill me if I don’t add that she has been a proud citizen of the United States for more than 40 years), knew more than a little about what racism can do. Having married, against her German father’s wishes, a black American 14 years her senior, then coming, in 1962, to America, where it was still illegal to marry outside of your race in 17 states, she also understood why my father jumped up out of his chair and shouted when the O.J. verdict was read. The O.J. trial was the same kind of terrible farce as the trial of Bryant and Milam.
Even as my dad shouted, I think he knew the acquittal was a Pyrrhic victory. Blacks weren’t gaining anything by letting a murderer go free. I resent that 10 years later we’re still hearing only about the African-Americans who thought the trial and verdict was fair (one exception is a Frontline episode that aired last Tuesday, an excellent in-depth look at the trial and verdict). There were a lot of us out there—including me—who believed O.J. to be guilty as sin. But as one woman, Linda Burnham, the head of the Black Women’s Resource Center in Oakland, said in an October 3 article in the British newspaper The Guardian, “I didn't believe in his innocence. But, like most black people I knew, I wasn’t interested in talking to white people about it unless they had sorted themselves out around the issues.” I couldn’t have put it better. Still, for a hot second my father and I, and I suspect many other African-Americans, felt that white people were finally experiencing the same type of helpless frustration blacks have felt toward our justice system since the time our ancestors were brought here on slave ships.
In May 2004 the Justice Department decided to reopen the Emmett Till case based on evidence, much of which was dug up by an amateur filmmaker from Louisiana named Keith Beauchamp, that there were others, still alive (Milam and Bryant both died of cancer, in 1981 and 1994, respectively), who may have taken part in the crime. That group includes Carolyn Bryant, now Carolyn Donham, 71 years old and living in Greenville, Mississippi. Some may ask what good come out of sending any elderly person to prison so long after the fact. For me, it is not so much the actual sentence, as the record that comes with it, the one that says, at last, justice was done.