If we don’t study history we are doomed to repeat it. Reading is a fun way to learn about history because you get involved in the most intimate details of the characters lives. There have been several really good books that address racial tensions and how we have progressed as a nation. A prime example of this is the book, “To Kill A Mockingbird” regarding the trial of Tim Robinson. Most convictions in the 1900’s were based on lies with very little and sometimes no evidence. If a white person said a black person committed a crime, everyone assumed they were telling the truth.
Unfortunately not much has changed over the years, as evidenced by George Zimmerman vs. Trayvon Martin, the Central Park Five, and even situations like Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who continuously violates the Civil Rights Act creating laws targeting minorities, and encouraging a “posse” mentality. Racism is not just a piece of history that we have learned from and changed our ways. One look at the percentage of wrongful convictions on death row is all we need to convince us of that.
It would be nice to live in a world where we only read non-fiction stories about the struggles of discrimination. We have come a long way, but we must continue to learn and evolve so that as a society we do not continue down this path of hatred and intolerance. In the book “To Kill A Mockingbird”, we are taken on a journey of disbelief as we watch Tim Robinson fight for his life because it’s just assumed that any African-American would rape any white woman, given the chance. During this trial we get to see two very different perspectives.
Mayella and her father tell the story everyone expects to hear, with the town backing them up every step of the way, describing Tim as the town’s nightmare and painting him as a wicked beast acting out of animalistic lust. Tim simply tells the story no one wants to hear, otherwise known as the truth. This story shines a mirror towards the townspeople who don’t want to face the fact that they are acting out of their own hatred towards black people in general, relying on stereotypes as facts to justify the oppression of an entire race of people who they feel are inferior.
While this is a fictional depiction of reality, the fact remains that during this time period Anglo-Saxons had a generalized view of discrimination feeling that they were justified based on their superiority. This perspective was passed down through the generations and ran rampid, not only in society but in the armed services and even the white house. In 1901 Teddy Roosevelt invited Booker T Washington to the White House for a private dinner, prompting citizens to accuse him of committing a crime against society, over a simple dinner.
Roosevelt allowed public opinion to sway his decisions and Washington was never invited back. Black people were prevented from voting, amongst other basic American rights and were lynched by mobs on a regular basis. According to David Pietrusza, author of “1920 The Year of Six Presidents “, between 1882 and 1968 (3,446) blacks were lynched nationwide, mostly in Southern jails where law enforcement did nothing to interfere. One victim, accused of “trying to vote” was lynched and three of his companions were burned to death.
During this time period Segregation was considered normal. The “Jim Crow” laws were a series of rigid anti-black laws that ensured African-Americans knew their role in society. According to Dr. David Pilgrim, Professor of Sociology at Ferris State University, Christian ministers and theologians taught that whites were the “chosen” people and blacks were cursed to be servants. Politicians gave eloquent speeches on the dangers of integration; media writers used racial slurs when referring to blacks. Even children’s games portrayed them as inferior beings.
Black people were taught to internalize their feelings and were controlled through the intimidation of wrongful convictions and death sentences issued on a regular basis. These infractions could be as small as a black man lighting the cigarette of a white woman. Until the Civil Rights Movement, black people in general tolerated the Jim Crow laws as a means of survival. Fast forward and we see that that although society as a whole began not to support racism and discrimination, they had a long way to go.
While the trial of Tim Robinson in “To Kill A Mockingbird” shined a light on the moral conflicts involved in discrimination, it clearly did not cure the disease of racism. Take the Scottsboro Boys as an example. Nine black teenage boys were accused of assault by several white teenage boys who had been hoboing on a freight train. The sheriff deputized a posse, stopped and searched the train, arrested these nine teens, then found two white girls to accuse them of rape.
The common sentence for the rape of a white woman in Alabama was death at this time, but the case was appealed and seven of the eight convictions were overturned. One of the women eventually admitted to making up the story and confessed that none of the Scottsboro Boys had touched either of the two women. Although there was no evidence to tie them to this crime, the case had to be tried three times and all three times a guilty verdict was returned by an all-white jury with the exception of the last trial which had one black jury member.
These teens were defended by many in the North, attacked by many in the South, and eventually led to the end of all white juries. Much like Tim Robinson, they had been arrested based on a lie and even though there was no evidence to support their conviction, societies views on whites as superior beings allowed these juries to feel comforted in their decision to rule based on lies, not facts. Discrimination continues to run rampid, driven by fear and ignorance. In 1989 four black teens and one Hispanic teen were accused of raping a female jogger in New York City’s Central Park.
She was raped and almost beaten to death, but she recovered with no memory of the attack or the events leading up to the assault which left her with severe hypothermia, blood loss from multiple lacerations, internal bleeding, and a fractured skull. Her left eye had to be removed from the socket due to the severity of the beating. In a move which the police department would ultimately regret, and contrary to the normal police procedure stating that the names of suspects under the age of sixteen are to be withheld, the names of these juveniles were released before any of them had a chance to be formally arraigned or indicted.
The convictions were overturned in 2002 when a convicted rapist and murderer, already serving a life sentence for other crimes, confessed to committing this one as well leading to exoneration after DNA evidence confirmed his story. This case sparked an outrage and a mistrust of police in general in the black community. These teens had been intimidated, lied to, and coerced into making false confessions after being held for hours without access to their parents or an attorney.
While their so-called confessions were videotaped, the hours preceding these confessions were not. No evidence tied them to the crime, and the myth that when a white woman is raped officers are trained to round up the first black teens they see was exposed. In 2003 two of these accused teens, now grown men, sued the city for malicious prosecution, racial discrimination, and emotional distress. Just recently a self-proclaimed “neighborhood watch” man used the “Stand Your Ground” law to absolve himself of any guilt in the killing of Trayvon
Martin, a young teen whose only crime was walking home from the corner store with an iced tea and a pack of skittles in his pocket. In 2012 Zimmerman approached this seventeen year old black male while on the phone with 9-1-1 operators who told him to wait for police and stop following him. A fight ensued and shots rang out. Anxious neighbors, unfamiliar with violence in their gated community, called 9-1-1 to report what they described as a disturbance. The haunting screams of the young man could be heard on the recorded sessions just before shots rang out ending his young life.
Zimmerman, who was only questioned for a short period of time, stated that he was in fear for his life, hiding behind Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, at which point the officers released him. Media reports, citizen outrage, and allegations of the racist motivation for both the shooting and what most considered police misconduct led to the eventual arrest of Mr. Zimmerman. Fear of retaliation from the community led to a Special Prosecutor being appointed to take over the investigation, so that a third party could make a fair and impartial assessment of the events that took place that night.
Although this case is still pending, most are convinced of his guilt due to the media uncovering several instances of racism leading up to the tragic ending of Mr. Martin’s young life. While many people feel that these instances of racism are rare, The “Innocence Project” has uncovered several death row cases that have led to exoneration, after DNA testing that was unavailable at the time of their conviction proved their innocence.
The most common reasons for these wrongful convictions were: eyewitness misidentification, invalidated or improper use of forensic science, false confessions, government misconduct, confidential informants, and bad lawyering. In a nutshell, those who cannot afford to defend themselves properly are at risk for being wrongly convicted due to false allegations. In Florida alone there have been thirteen overturned convictions on death row, with an average time spent in jail being 13. years, with some sitting in prison as long as twenty-three years based on eye-witness misidentification. There have been 305 post-conviction DNA exonerations Nationwide with a disproportional amount of African-Americans falsely accused. According to statistics 190 African-Americans, 87 Caucasians, 21 Latinos, 2 Asian Americans, and 5 whose races were unknown have DNA evidence to thank for their freedom. This is not only a problem in Southern States, as these cases have been found in 36 states including, New York, Florida, Texas, California, and Washington State.
Over 25% of the wrongful convictions were based on false statements that were coerced by police due to: real or perceived intimidation by law enforcement; use of force during the interrogation; distress caused by exhaustion, stress, hunger, substance use, mental illness, or limited education; devious interrogation techniques, such as untrue statements about supposedly incriminating evidence; or simple fear on the part of the suspect that if they don’t confess they will receive a harsher penalty. While society as a whole has come a long way with regards to racial profiling, instances still exist.
President Obama’s Administration is currently investigating an Arizona County Sheriff Joe Arpaio for allegedly encouraging his officers to make unlawful stops with his controversial SB-1070 law which allows for racial profiling of suspects. His officers have been accused of using excessive force against minorities and the Justice Department has accused him of failing to adequately protect citizens of Maricopa County. Arpaio first made headlines when he accused our first African-American President Barack Obama of presenting a forged birth certificate, citing that he was not eligible to be the President of the United States.
This controversial investigation sparked a national debate and led to a resurgence of organized discrimination, prevalent not only in society, but slowly creeping into the political sectors as evidenced through some of the Tea Party rallies. Movie makers are calling attention to this plight with movies like “Django Unchained” depicting a black slave who is freed and becomes partners with a bounty hunter who eventually helps him overtake a cruel plantation owner so that he can rescue and reclaim his wife who was abused then sold by his former owners.
Movie goers have shown strong support of directors willing to shed light on this chilling point in history by spending $416 million in movie theatres world-wide. Movies like “Lincoln” depict a President struggling with many inside his own cabinet on the decision to emancipate slaves. Author Saundra D. Westervelt, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina chronicles these miscarriages of justice in the book “Wrongly Convicted: Perspectives on Failed Justices (Critical Issues in Crime and Society)”.
She discusses the fact that eyewitness accounts are typically wrong, police trick suspects into making confessions through fear tactics, informants lie to gain benefits, sometimes the police officers are just incompetent and do not do a thorough job while investigating, and shines light on the fact that those who are unpopular, uneducated, or are members of a racial minority invite harsher treatment by the authorities for just being themselves. In short convictions in the 1900’s were strongly influenced by discrimination, which has been proven through history and reflected in the literature we read today.
In the past, it didn’t matter who lied about you, if you were a person of color then systematically you were considered guilty. Instead of allowing people to hide behind laws like, “Stand Your Ground”; we as a society should rise up and stand our ground against those in society who still feel that convicting based on the color of one’s skin is a valid reason for prosecution. If you were to ask me if I thought discrimination played a huge role in history, or if I felt that we were at risk of repeating our mistakes, I’d say the proof is in the pudding. References: