Every February we celebrate the history of African Americans with Black History Month, started by Carter G. Woodson in 1926 as Negro History Month. And every year the question is asked whether we still need to recognize Black History Month. While Black History Month is a time to recognize the rich history and accomplishments of African Americans, it should also be a time to view history in context with today’s challenges still facing blacks in America. And in that context, 2014 gave us five good legal reasons for Black History Month. Those reasons can be summed up with the cases of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Renisha McBride and Jordan Davis. These cases that took place in Missouri, New York, Ohio, Michigan and Florida represent why we need black history. The racial disparities and injustices in the criminal justice system along with continued racial stereotyping and profiling of blacks are but a few of the many issues facing blacks today.
In the summer of 2014, 18 year old unarmed Michael Brown was shot multiple times by Officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Missouri while many eyewitnesses saw Brown with his hands up while being shot and killed by Wilson. Wilson’s account differed. St. Louis Prosecutor Robert McCullough refused to recuse himself from the Grand Jury process despite what many viewed as his potential conflict of interest in a police shooting case. And Prosecutor McCullough’s office in presenting the case to the Grand Jury for an indictment read incorrect and outdated laws to the Grand Jury favoring Wilson, presented witness testimony that McCullough knew to be false and provided immaterial information for the Grand Jury to consider. This was not a trial but a simple proceeding to bring charges and then let a judge or jury determine guilt or innocence. From this former prosecutor’s perspective, McCullough was not trying to get an indictment against Officer Wilson. And in the end, the Grand Jury did not return an indictment leading to the protests seen across the country. The Brown case sparked protests and shouts of “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” around the world as far away as Asia due to the injustice here in America.
Just a few weeks before Michael Brown’s death, a police officer in New York stopped and choked Eric Garner in July over a stop for alleged illegal cigarettes. This time the incident was caught on tape showing the police officer choking Garner while he screamed “I can’t breathe”. Despite seeing Garner die on a video tape, the Staten Island Grand Jury refrained from indicting the police officers. Since the Grand Jury proceeding is secret, it is not known what the prosecutor presented to the Grand Jury. Even former Presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton were puzzled as to why no indictment came against the officer.
In November, 2014 twelve year old Tamir Rice joined Michael Brown and Eric Garner with being shot by a police officer while unarmed. Tamir, while playing with a toy gun, was shot in a Cleveland park by a white police officer within seconds of arriving. The police never saw a 12 year old. Instead the officers claim that Tamir looked like he was 20. Tamir didn’t look 20. Psychological studies conducted with records of white police officers tend to show that many white male officers may dehumanize blacks and their looks. No charges have been filed in Tamir’s case although it is under investigation. Unfortunately, the police shooting cases of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and Eric Garner are not an aberration.
The 2014 trials of Jordan Davis and Renisha McBride highlight what many young blacks face when encountering whites who view them as trouble makers, suspicious and up to no good. Jordan Davis, sitting in a car with his teen aged friends was shot and killed by Michael Dunn, simply for playing his music too loud. And Renisha McBride met her fateful death when she came to the door of Theodore Wafer, in a mostly white suburb outside of Detroit, banging for help after a car accident in the pre-dawn hours. Her help came in the form of a 12 gauge rifle bullet to her face. McBride’s case showed that black women are derogatorily stereotyped in the same manner as black men—albeit not as often.
The racial criminal justice issues go far beyond these five cases. These cases help to put in context what happens to African Americans who encounter the criminal justice system as victims. And in the context of black history month, March 7 will be the 50th Anniversary of Bloody Sunday, the Selma March, depicted in the film Selma, where approximately 600 blacks were viciously beat, clubbed and tear gassed by white police officers while they were peacefully marching across the Edmund Pettus bridge. Seeing those moments on TV in 1965 helped to galvanize the Civil Rights Movement. I still wonder what will it take to galvanize a movement today over black killings by white officers.
While growing up, teachers taught me that America is one large melting pot with races and ethnicities blended in the pot. The new terminology today is post racial. Yet, no matter how long that imaginary melting pot is stirred today, African Americans still have a long way to go before race issues in America are eradicated. In order to accomplish ending racism in America, we must first recognize that race issues exist; that blacks are still treated differently due to the color of their skin; and that racism is real in America. Then we must do something about it to make a change to accomplish “liberty and justice for all.” Black History Month still matters. And Black lives matter too.