The days of Jim Crow have raised their ugly heads again in Georgia. And it isn’t the whining of snowflakes seeking safe spaces, or the false accusations of Gerneration Z activists against so-called ‘white privilege’. This is the real thing, and it burst into the news this past week.
Raw, blatant racism in its most repugnant form broke the silence of a quiet afternoon in rural Georgia on February 23, 2020. It was the cold-blooded murder of a young black man by two white men, a father and son, who explain that they were trying to carry out a “citizen’s arrest”. The young man was Ahmaud Arbery who, from all accounts as well as video evidence, was out for a jog on a road in rural Glynn County, near the coastal city of Brunswick, Georgia, when he was murdered by two men in a white pickup.
The two men were Gregory McMichael, 64, and his son, Travis, 34, who are both white. The victim, Ahmaud Arbery, 25, was black. In a stark return to the violence of the Jim Crow era, the father and son saw Arbery jogging, blocked his path, assaulted him, and shot him to death. From all appearances, this was an old-fashioned lynching.
It was not only the attack itself which was so reminiscent of the terrible times before the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s. It was also the cover-up of the crime by local law enforcement, who immediately called this a “justifiable homicide” and refused to investigate it further.
It took the leaking of a video ten weeks later to blast this case wide open and expose the racism and cronyism that still exists in the deep south. The video, which was taken by William “Roddie” Bryan, a man who lived on that street, shows Arbery jogging down the road when the men stopped him. Travis then got a shot gun out of the truck and struggled with Arbery, and shot him during the struggle. Arbery fell to the ground, where he died.
It took ten weeks for the story to come out, after the video was leaked to blast this case wide open and expose the racism and cronyism that still exists in the deep south. This was raw and ugly and the face of the south that we like to think was long gone. And it cannot be ignored.
Not so long ago, but long after the civil rights movement had come and gone, I bought a small farm in rural Virginia. It was a few miles outside of a little town, with one traffic light, and a slow country ambiance. It seemed idyllic. The town was typical of many small, rural towns in the south, where people had that slow southern drawl that seemed to fit nicely with the slow southern way of life.
But simmering just beneath the surface of southern manners, was a fierce and ugly white-on-black hatred and it ruined everything else.
One December, I attended a Christmas party sponsored by the local Chamber of Commerce. They had a private room in the only restaurant in town, and they had brought some music to entertain everyone. It was country music that fit into the mood of the party. And it was all fine until I noticed that some of the people seemed to be laughing at the songs and so I began to listen to the words of the songs. The songs were filled with the most vile, racist, references and epithets – all derogatory and all about black people.
It was disgusting and I was shocked, first that such filthy songs would be the entertainment for the Chamber of Commerce, and then because these were my friends – or so I thought – and my clients. I got up and left the party in the middle and resigned from the Chamber the next day. It was a lesson about the new south – and one that I never forgot.
I will never understand how such hatred could drive a person to the extremes of violence and murder against anyone, and just because of the color of his skin. Or his religion. Or his way of life. It makes no sense to me. And more than that it is inexcusably wrong.
Yet, there was a time, only a few decades ago, when self-righteous white people, talked openly about how God wanted the races to be separate. They were the same kind of white people who went to all-white churches and would passionately contend that black people should go to their own churches and not mingle – or pray – with their white co-religionists, that it was what God wanted. And they didn’t want to sit next to a black person on the bus. Or send their little white girls to school with little black boys. Or eat in the same restaurant or shop in the same store. And on and on. And people really believed that rubbish. And were prepared to enshrine their hatred into laws that legally kept the white and black races separate. And it hurt, because it was against everything America is supposed to stand for. But that was then. Or so I once thought.
I no longer live in the south, but the crime of murder against Ahmaud Arbery that was perpetrated by the McMichaels just ten weeks ago, has brought back all of the ugly memories of the raw hatred that burns in the hearts of people like that.
There’s no excuse for what happened that evening, and the two men, father and son, should be prosecuted and sentenced to the full extent of the law. Because there seems to be no question about what happened. It’s all on video.
There is only the question of whether justice will be done for the murder of young Ahmaud Arbery for no other reason than that he was jogging while black. And that this is still the deep south.
The story of Arbery’s murder is far from over. The case has now been turned over to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, where they say that not only the crime itself, but the police handling of it as well, will be investigated. And the two McMichaels, father and son, have been arrested and charged with murder and aggravated assault.
But the rumor mills have already begun and among other things, they have implicated the man who saw the altercation and made the video. He just did what people do all over the country, indeed, all over the world. He saw something happening and he took out his phone and recorded it. But he now has now been accused of having a weapon – one other than his phone – and the rumor-mongers have also cast him as being linked to the McMichaels and a part of the assault. His lawyer says that he has no connection to them, that the rumors that are flying around have no merit whatsoever.
In fact, what this man saw and recorded was given to the police immediately, but it was never used because they chose not to prosecute. It was, they said, a “Justifiable homicide”. It took someone to leak the video, ten weeks after Arbery was murdered, before anyone would start paying attention. But people are listening now.
This is a nation that is supposed to be subject to law and order. And most of the time, I think it is. So the McMichaels will have their day in court. And that is how it should be.
But what seems clear to me, at least from where I sit, is that these two rednecks killed a young black man because they thought they could get away with it. And the sad truth – is that they almost did.
COVER IMAGE: Artist Theo Ponchaveli paints a mural of the likeness of Ahmaud Arbery in Dallas, Friday, May 8, 2020. Ponchaveli said that he was inspired to paint the mural after seeing the video of Arbery’s death on a news broadcast. Image: AP.