This sort of meaningless racial violence is not new. Neither is the national attention it has sparked. Americans have long responded with outrage, indignation and swift calls for justice. Yet, in too many cases, the legal system has reacted to that outrage with a familiar pattern: after weeks of foot dragging, an arrest is made. The promise of justice glimmers in the court proceedings that ensue. Cries of fury and frustration follow when a judge or jury acquits the perpetrator — but no systemic change occurs and the pattern endures.
In 1955 the lynching of Emmet Till, a 14-year-old Chicagoan who was tortured and executed for the alleged crime of offending a white woman in Mississippi, made national headlines. An all-white jury acquitted his killers, Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam, despite damning eyewitness testimony that connected them to the crime. Safe from double jeopardy, the killers sold their story for $4,000 to Look magazine just a few months later. Though many Americans were disgusted by their brazen admission, the media attention, nevertheless, bought fame and money for the perpetrators rather than justice for the victim.
Regardless of the level of national media attention, senseless, racialized violence has often involved the complicity of local law enforcement, which can undermine justice even in cases with significant evidence of the defendant’s guilt. For instance, on Sept. 15, 1963, two white Eagle Scouts in Birmingham, Ala., shot and killed 13-year-old Virgil Lamar Ware as he sat atop the handlebars of his brother’s bicycle. While the global media was focused on another fatal crime that happened in Birmingham that morning — the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church — it seemed the criminal justice system might work. The 16-year-old white boys who shot Ware, Larry Joe Sims and Michael Lee Farley, were tried and convicted of second-degree manslaughter.
Yet they were only sentenced to seven months in jail, and in a matter of weeks, their sentences were commuted to probation. Instead of expressing sympathy for Ware, during their preliminary hearing Farley and Sims’s attorney referred to the murder as an “unfortunate accident” and lamented that his clients — “two raw, grieved, untutored boys” — “had this unfortunate thing come into their lives at their age.”
In fact, major convictions and tough sentences for racially motivated crimes have typically only happened when sheriffs, police, attorneys or judges who might obstruct criminal prosecution were either retired or deceased by the time charges were filed. For example, in 1971, Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley reopened the investigation into Birmingham’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church Bombing, which had remained stagnant for eight years. In 1977 the first of the bombers, Robert “Dynamite Bob” Chambliss, was convicted and sentenced to prison, followed by Thomas Edwin Blanton, Jr. in 2001, and finally, Bobby Frank Cherry in 2002.
Media can play a role in this process of achieving long overdue justice too. In 1964, two hung juries prevented Mississippi from convicting Byron De La Beckwith for the 1963 murder of NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers. In 1989, investigative journalist Jerry Mitchell revealed that the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission — a state-sponsored organization that attempted to undermine civil rights advancements while operating under the guise of protecting state sovereignty at the hands of encroaching federal power — interfered with the 1964 jury selections in an effort to secure an acquittal for Beckwith. This revelation spurred a retrial, which produced a conviction and a sentence of life in prison in 1994.
The Evers case accentuated how, thanks to media investigations and Civil Rights Cold Case projects and legislation, perpetrators of historic misdeeds finally began to be brought to justice in the 1990s and 2000s. But, at the same time, a new obstacle arose to prosecuting racial violence. Stand Your Ground (SYG) laws have replaced some of the historic barriers to justice — perpetuating the cycle of murder, outrage and lack of conviction in the 21st century.
Beginning in 2005, Florida was the first of 25 states to pass legislation that waived the duty to retreat before using deadly force in instances of self-defense. The racially disparate implications of this legislation were not fully revealed until February 2012, when the shooting of 17-year-old Floridian Trayvon Martin made national headlines. George Zimmerman, a local neighborhood watch captain who suspected the boy “was up to no good,” had followed Martin from a convenience store and shot him. In a striking similarity to the current Arbery case, Zimmerman was arrested nearly two months later after a period of intense media scrutiny. Thanks to Florida’s SYG statue, however, he was acquitted of the crime the following summer. In 2016, Zimmerman sold the weapon he used to kill Martin for $138,900. He marketed the gun as “an American Firearm Icon.”
This pervasive legacy of racism and brutality is buried beneath celebratory stories of national progress. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously dreamed of a day when his children might be valued, as their white peers were, for their character and integrity. But today, African Americans still have to teach their children about the bodily harm that might come their way should they fail to comport themselves with certain social mores and expectations. Black parents, like the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, have tempered the expectations laid out by King; they simply hope their children might survive adolescence. Coates told his son, “I did not tell you that it would be okay … but you must find some way to live within the all of it.”
Covid-19 has only heightened these concerns. Wearing a mask is risky for people of color, as Aaron Thomas, a medical research coordinator at Ohio State University, explained on Twitter. “I don’t feel safe wearing a handkerchief or something else that isn’t CLEARLY a protective mask covering my face to the store because I am a Black man living in this world. I want to stay alive but I also want to stay alive.”
White Americans have no corollary, no tradition of a direct conversation about the social, political and economic advantages associated with white skin. And even those white Americans not oblivious or apathetic to this brutality have proved unable to create meaningful change. Short of overhauling the justice system and dismantling centuries of systemic racism, individual attempts at national reform feel inadequate.
Yet, we might be at an inflection point, a moment to weigh national values and ideals against lived reality. The threat of covid-19 has produced a visceral sense of unease as once-mundane aspects of life have become imbued with confusion and fear. Is it safe to leave home? Is that nightly walk really necessary? For many white Americans, the current pandemic is their first experience of chronic fear and anxiety of the outside world.
The experience for white Americans of that constant fear and anxiety that has long been a part of being black in America may spur an assessment into what changes are necessary to avoid the continuation of the familiar pattern of violence, inaction and injustice. A renewed opportunity for justice has emerged with recent arrests of the McMichaels. The outcome of this case, and the answer to whether the nation can finally begin to repair the damage caused by decades of racial violence, now lies in the capable, albeit precarious, hands of the justice system.