My 102-year-old mother-in-law, Henryne Walker Stewart Goode, whom we buried a week ago at the Walker family cemetery in Okolona, Mississippi, often told an unforgettable story at our kitchen table.
She attended Okolona College, where she was taught English and public speaking by James Raspberry, the father of my late Post colleague, William Raspberry. At one time, in my mother-in-law’s telling, animals on the school’s farm were falling victim to some invading marauder. A school employee discovered the culprit — a dog — and shot it. But the white farmer who owned the dog retaliated, turning up at the school to shoot the employee to death and threaten the school’s president. The school’s president was forced to flee, my mother-in-law said, but nothing happened to the white farmer. That said all we needed to know about Deep South justice of her youth.
An account in the July 4, 1931, edition of the Afro American flushed out the details of this tale, and over 90 years it deviated remarkably little from the facts. The dog that was shot by school employee Ulysses Baskin was part of a pack that attacked the school’s sheep. On May 30, 1925, Baskin was in fact shot by the dog’s owner eight times. School president Wallace A. Battle demanded the arrest of the culprit, but the local grand jury freed him. Battle didn’t flee, though; he resigned in protest when the school’s white trustees would not demand justice for the murder.
That was Mississippi in the 1920s — a time when white men were justified in taking the law into their own hands in matters involving black men. That white Okolona farmer was simply exercising his delegated, albeit unofficial, police powers. The incident gave meaning to the assertion of Chief Justice Roger Taney in Dred Scott that the black man has “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”
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The slaying in Ferguson, Missouri, of an unarmed, 18-year-old African American, Michael Brown, by a white cop, Darren Wilson, who in turn gets away with it, strikes a raw nerve. It reminds many of the way in which authority is exercised, especially in communities where the central relationship between blacks and whites is the police.
In places like Ferguson, police represent white authority. Authority empowered to enter the community backed by the extralegal support of white sentiment. Authority whose word is taken against the word of an accused African American. Authority that not only arrests, but punishes, too.
Where else can you fire 12 shots at an unarmed teenager, at least six of which strike his body, and walk away?
Of course, the story of blacks not getting justice didn’t start with Michael Brown or Trayvon Martin. That history is long, thus the outrage. Sociologist Gunnar Myrdal, writing in the 1940s, described what communities such as Ferguson encounter: a “weak man with his strong weapons — backed by all the authority of white society — (who) is now sent to be the white law in the Negro neighborhood. There he is away from home.”
“The white policeman in the Negro community . . . feels himself in danger.” Written in the 1940s.
Listen to Wilson’s grand jury testimony, in which he characterizes the Ferguson community that he patrolled:
Wilson: “It is an antipolice area for sure.”
Prosecutor: “And when you say antipolice, tell me more?
Wilson: “There’s a lot of gangs that reside or associate with that area. There’s a lot of violence in that area, there’s a lot of gun activity, drug activity, it is just not a very well-liked community. That community doesn’t like the police.”
Prosecutor: “Were you pretty much on high alert being in that community by yourself, especially when Michael Brown said, ‘expletive) what you say,’ I think he said?”
Prosecutor: “You were on pretty high alert at that point knowing the vicinity and the area that you’re in?”
Wilson: “Yes, that’s not an area where you can take anything really. Like I said, it is a hostile environment.”
We are in a bad place.
My 20-year-old grandson, Will, the most gentle and respectful young man you would ever want to meet, posted this on his Facebook page:
“Regarding the recent events in Ferguson: I’ve always wanted to believe my country was free. But today’s grand jury decision tells me this cannot be the case. No country that refuses to hold the police, those so-called ‘defenders of the law,’ accountable for its unjust brutality — and yes, it is often very brutal — can be free. When the grand jury declined to charge Darren Wilson for his actions, what kind of a message does that send? . . . It doesn’t seem fair that police can commit brutal acts against innocent people and get away with it.”
It’s not, Will. Not today. Not in your great-grandmother’s day when that Mississippi grand jury let that white farmer get away with murder. Not ever.
Colbert I. King is a former deputy editorial page editor of The Washington Post.
Special to The Washington Post