The hysteria over so-called racism manufactured in the wake of the very public death of George Floyd has infected every facet of American life, including the criminal justice system. It is accepted without credit or qualification that American justice is racist, meaning it deals more harshly with blacks than with whites, but is this really so? Let’s take a look at some high profile cases, some recent, some not so recent.
Huddie Ledbetter was a singer-songwriter of some repute. Known as Lead Belly, his rise to fame was unusual, to say the least. Although he became famous for music, he also became infamous for violence and his love of drink. The date and year of his birth are uncertain, although the Lead Belly Foundation website gives it as January 20, 1889. In December 1917, he was arrested for murder after shooting a relative named Will Stafford in the head in a fight over a woman. He received a thirty year prison sentence the following year. Murder could be capital in Texas then as now, and six men – three black, three white – were executed in the Lone Star State that year, yet Lead Belly was back on the street in 1925 after being pardoned.
One would have thought, hoped, he would have learned his lesson, but in 1930, he stabbed a man in a fight and was convicted of attempted murder. He was “discovered” in Angola State Prison by the famous folklorist John Lomax, and that was when his career really took off. He died in 1949 having made numerous recordings, featured in Life magazine, and hosting his own radio show. History has been kind to Lead Belly, forgiving his very obvious flaws on account of his talent.
Chuck Berry was an even greater musical talent than Lead Belly, and has arguably influenced more rock musicians than anyone in history. Indeed, there is probably not a rock or blues guitarist on the planet who hasn’t been influenced by him or by someone who was influenced by him. Yet things could have been very different, because although unlike Lead Belly, Chuck came from a distinctly middle class family, in 1944, the teenaged Berry received a ten year sentence for armed robbery, serving only three years.
He bounced back by hard work and dedication coupled with the usual lucky break, but racism was never an obstacle. In later life, Chuck fell foul of the taxman; his other clashes with the law are best not mentioned here.
Okay, that’s men of outstanding talent, but what about ordinary blacks, or those most people go out of their way to avoid?
In April 1913, a young white girl was found murdered in a factory at Atlanta, Georgia. The case became a sensation, books have been written about it, and to this day it is the subject of manufactured controversy. Initially, there were a number of suspects, but at the end of the day there were only two: Leo Frank, who managed and was part-owner of the company; and his hired help Jim Conley. The State could have charged either or both men with the crime, in the end it elected to charge Frank, with Conley the star prosecution witness. The tale Conley told was difficult to swallow, although there was other evidence against Frank, something that is glossed over today.
At Frank’s trial, Conley was cross-examined by one of the finest defense lawyers in the country, and his testimony held up. Frank was convicted, sentenced to death, and ultimately lynched by a gang that broke into the prison where he was being held. But what of Conley? He served time on a chain gang as an accessory after the murder, and that wasn’t his last clash with the law, but he lived out his life unmolested by white folks, not what would be expected if one were to swallow some of the garbage spewed out by the anti-racist lobby today.
If a black man murdering a white girl was considered an unforgivable sin in the Deep South, raping a white woman was nearly as bad. The year 1931 saw three controversial rape cases in the United States: the Massie affair in Hawaii; the Scottsboro Boys case (of which more anon); and the alleged rape of Dorothy Skaggs.
On January 6 of that year, she claimed to have been attacked, robbed and raped by a Negro at Norfolk, Virginia. William Harper was arrested for an unrelated assault, and confessed, or a confession was extracted from him. At that time, rape was capital in Virginia, and on his conviction, Harper was sentenced to death. Immediately after the trial, the victim’s story was seriously undermined, the judge ordered a retrial, and Harper was acquitted. Skaggs was a married woman who had been playing away, and was prepared to allow an innocent man to die in order to protect her marriage.
To Part 2.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Duran.