Today, the Equal Justice Institute shares a story from 1910 that still echoes today.
On July 23, 1910, Colored Alabamian, a black magazine, reported the murder of black taxi driver Mitchell Johnson in Montgomery, Alabama. Earlier that month, a white man employed Mr. Johnson to drive him to his home, then refused to pay the fare. Mr. Johnson reported the incident to his employer and had the man arrested. After the passenger posted bond and was released from jail, he found Mr. Johnson and shot him dead. When the man was rearrested, he asserted that he killed Mr. Johnson in self-defense and he was released.
On July 11, 1910, following Mr. Johnson’s death and a string of murders, Montgomery County Judge Armstead Brown instructed a jury to determine a defendant’s innocence based on evidence and not on class or race. He stated, “All charges of homicide should be rigidly investigated. Whether the killing be of some person of standing or a poor unknown negro.”
Colored Alabamian applauded his remarks: “White men who murder Negroes only have to tell the Court they acted in SELF-DEFENSE, to be turned loose, whether the victim was a Negro man or a poor helpless Negro woman. We are therefore very thankful to Judge Brown.”
Despite Judge Brown’s plea for even-handed enforcement of the law, distrust of the criminal justice system among black Montgomery residents grew. Two months after Grover C. Ray, a white man, murdered Ed Rugley, a black man, Colored Alabamian‘s editorial board warned, “Watch out now for the old theory of SELF-DEFENSE.” In cases where white defendants were charged with killing black people like Mr. Johnson, the black community in Montgomery increasingly came to see the justice system not as a source of protection but as complicit in shielding white men from accountability for violence against African Americans.
I find it heart breaking that we seemed to have made little progress in this area. From George Zimmerman to almost any incident of police shooting unarmed black men, the simple assertion of self-defense or fear for one’s life is still, in the 2010s, enough to be acquitted of murdering an unarmed black man or in some cases, to avoid being charged.
We also have to take a moment to gape in horror at the level of entitlement and hatred present in the murderer of Mr. Johnson. Even if we assume that Mr. Johnson lied (which I do not) about his passenger not paying a fair, how does false witness become a death penalty offense? In the more likely case where Mr. Johnson was telling the truth, how staggering it is that the passenger, having stiffed the taxi driver, decided that the driver had to die for reporting his crime? The arrogance just astounds.