“But the color of a Negro's skin makes him easily recognizable, makes him suspect, converts him into a defenseless target”
—Richard Wright, Black Boy, 1945
George Floyd was a 46-year-old black man. He was murdered in plain sight over the course of nine minutes by men clothed by the state of Minnesota with the immense responsibility for enforcing the law. I am a 54-year-old white man who has spent all of my adult life working as a practicing lawyer and trial court judge. I read Richard Wright’s memoir, “Black Boy” when I was 20, and I didn’t find the above quote to be credible. At 54, after too many tragedies, I now sadly believe it to be truer than not. I attended and listened closely at the community conversation on June 3, hopefully the first of many, where the usual promises were made for systemic change. I certainly hope so. As Bishop Andre Mitchell said at this forum, while he hears that the community is “tired” of this type of police misconduct, black people are simply “exhausted”. Though an inextricable and tragic part of it, this exhaustion is not caused alone by George Floyd’s murder. Its genesis goes so much deeper. We must understand that its roots extend back over 400 years in our country. We must also understand that these roots are baked into our collective history and have enjoyed legal sanction for most of that period. We must also understand that these roots feel like heavy shackles to those who have had to live with them for far too long.
Examining this history is critical. While George Floyd’s lynching has spurred the current dialogue, his murder is simply the latest in a long and sordid catalogue of this country’s original sin, racism, causing the violent end of a black life. At the community conversation, I thought of Emmett Till, a 14 year old black man lynched outside Money, Mississippi in 1955; I thought of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith lynched in Marion, Indiana in 1930; I thought of Medgar Evers murdered outside his home in 1963; I thought of four girls going to church in Birmingham in 1963 only to be murdered; I thought of Ahmaud Arbery murdered in February of 2020 while jogging in Georgia; I thought of Eric Garner killed by police in 2014; I thought of Rodney King in 1992, and I think of all those countless times not captured by the lens of history where the law has not protected black men, women, and children from being marginalized, brutalized, or murdered solely for being black.
While, as Dr. King noted, the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice, our history of racial discord in this country has been one of a slow and violent bending of that moral arc. As difficult as it may be, we need to understand that these failures of our laws and hearts were baked in at the beginning. July 4, 1776 witnessed the founding of our Nation with the stated lofty goal that “all men are created equal.” We know that Jefferson meant white men when he wrote those words during that hot summer. But, in the midst of our bloody civil war, Lincoln said at Gettysburg in 1863, the nation was “conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” as he sought to edge the nation towards a broader meaning of equality. Lincoln’s humane genius was fully present that November day in Pennsylvania when he engrafted the promise of Jefferson’s limited Declaration onto our flawed Constitution that enshrined slavery as an unholy compromise. A Constitution that set forth the three fifths clause sanctioning the enslavement of black men, women, and children, and counted each of them as only three fifths of a person for purposes of the representative census.
Reconstruction was put in place at the Civil War’s end but was jettisoned as the result of another unholy compromise by white men following the 1876 election. So, the law failed, and this compromise that ended Reconstruction ushered in Jim Crow with its resulting laws relegating black people to second-class citizenship. The law then failed again with the United States Supreme Court decisions in the civil rights amendments and Plessy cases. It failed with its sanction of Jim Crow in the south and de facto Jim Crow in the north that extended well into the 1960s. It has repeatedly failed with its inability to obtain timely justice for Emmett Till, Medgar Evers, Eric Garner, Thomas Shipp, Abram Smith and so many other black men, women, and children who had names, were loved by their families and their friends, and yet were betrayed by the insidious effects of racism on a system of justice that is supposed to provide a safe harbor and to ensure equality.
Largely due to the NAACP’s legal advocacy in the 1930s, progress for civil rights before the law started to advance, and has made tremendous strides over the last 90 years. So, while progress continues to this day, it does so only with constant vigilance, dialogue, training and education. In short, our work is far from complete. While our work will likely never be done, we must commit to ensuring that justice doesn’t just happen when the cameras are running. We must work to ensure that it becomes second nature for all of us who have responsibility for administering and implementing local, state, or federal law at all levels; it must be second nature for those of us who are tasked with responsibility for educating our children, and it must be second nature for those of us who have it in our power to lift up those who have had a boot on their necks for far too long.
I pray that this time we all listen to those who can tell us their stories, and that we do not stop listening. I pray that we all feel the urgency of now being the time to commit to equity and justice for all. And I pray that we all learn to engage our minds and nourish our hearts so that the color of someone’s skin doesn’t make them a suspect and a defenseless target. In short, there must be a universal recognition that Black Lives Matter.
James R. Williams is a partner at Defur Voran, and a former state court trial judge. He is also President of the Muncie Community Schools Board. The views and opinions set forth herein are his alone.