And Justice For All

My drama teacher in high school required us to read An Enemy of the People, a play by Henrik Ibsen. My teacher kept harping on the play’s theme: the majority is not always correct. I never fully understood what she meant by that until years later as an adult.

As humans, we like to form groups, which leads to in-crowds and out-crowds. If you are part of the group, you are part of the in-crowd; if you are not in the group, you are part of the out-crowd. And those in-crowds we are part of can sometimes make us irrational. If we are football fans, for example, we put wild make-up on our faces and hair and dress in ways we wouldn’t anywhere other than at a football game. And we don’t just love our team; we hate the opposing team and every person supporting that team. That love-hate relationship is carried out not only on the field but sometimes in the stands. I smile at those photos showing a single person wearing a red jersey in a sea of blue jerseys and think of the Southwest Airlines ad line: “Want to get away?”

But it’s not just in sports. My parents raised me in a religion that taught it was the only true and living church on earth, and according to its founder, all others were an abomination in the sight of God. Little wonder I grew up with a bias against anyone who was not a member of my church. But fortunately, as a teenager, I started to see things differently. There are good people in all religions, and mine had no monopoly on the truth. And everyone, even those who disagree with us, is entitled to respect and understanding.

But what do you do if you are not a member of the predominant in-crowd? At the very least, you hope those in the in-crowd will treat you justly, despite being in the out-crowd. Alexander Hamilton once said, “I think the first duty of society is justice.” I believe all the Founding Fathers of this country saw it that same way and tried to set up a government that protected everyone, even those in the out-crowd.

In law school, I often thought about the symbol of legal justice—a woman holding a balancing scale with a blindfold over her eyes. In other words, justice should be blind to whether the person on trial is part of the in-crowd or the out-crowd. Said another way, we should decide all legal matters solely on their merits.

Sadly, reality does not always follow that ideal. Or, as Monica Piper once quipped, “Juries scare me. I don’t want to put my fate in the hands of twelve people who weren’t smart enough to get out of jury duty.”

One of my favorite movies at the recent Austin Film Festival was American: An Odyssey to 1947. In part, it told the story of Isaac Woodard. An African-American veteran of World War II, Woodard was a victim of racial violence that left him completely blind. After being discharged from the army and still in uniform, Woodard boarded a Greyhound bus from Augusta, Georgia, to his home in North Carolina. But at a bus stop in South Carolina, for no reason other than he was an African-American, local police forcibly removed Woodard from the bus and repeatedly beat him with nightsticks. The officers then arrested Woodard for disorderly conduct. During his night in jail, the local sheriff walloped Woodard and repeatedly stabbed his eyes with his billy club, leaving him permanently blind. The following day, police sent Woodard before the local judge, who found him guilty and fined him fifty dollars.

Slowly, Woodard’s story spread, primarily due to the efforts of the NAACP. When Orson Welles heard of the beating, he made it the focus of his national weekly radio broadcast for five straight weeks. Those broadcasts prompted the Justice Department to investigate and bring charges against those involved. But after thirty minutes of deliberation, the all-white jury acquitted all the defendants, including the sheriff.

From all appearances, Isaac Woodard received no justice. But maybe he did in another way. Shortly after the verdict, President Harry S. Truman established the Civil Rights Commission, and in a speech on civil rights made a short time later, President Truman said, in part:

“It is my deep conviction that we have reached a turning point in our country’s efforts to guarantee freedom and equality to all our citizens. Recent events in the United States and abroad have made us realize that it is more important today than ever before to ensure that all Americans enjoy these rights. When I say all Americans—I mean all Americans.”

The following year, President Truman sent the first comprehensive civil rights bill to Congress and later banned segregation in the armed forces. And thus, thanks to Isaac Woodard’s experience, the civil rights movement began earnestly in America.

But it would be a long road that still has not reached its destination.

The recent film, Till,[i] tells the true story of Emmitt Till’s mother, who, after the brutal lynching of her son in 1955, vows to expose the racism behind it and find justice for her son. Here is the trailer for the movie:   

While Isaac Woodard became the catalyst behind America’s civil rights movement, Emmitt Till became its icon. Although the details are unclear, Till, a 14-year-old African-American visiting his cousins in Mississippi from Chicago, allegedly talked to, flirted with, or whistled at a 21-year-old white woman in a grocery store. A few nights after the incident, the woman’s husband and others abducted Till, then beat and mutilated him before shooting him in the head and dumping his body in the Tallahatchie River.

A month later, an all-white jury found Till’s murderers not guilty. Protected now by the Constitution’s protection against double jeopardy (not being tried for the same crime twice), the attackers later confessed to the murder. Like Isaac Woodard, there appeared to be no justice for Emmitt Till.

But Emmitt’s mother, Mamie, received justice in another way. As Benjamin Disraeli once said, “Justice is truth in action.” And Mamie took action. She insisted on a public funeral with an open casket so the world could see what those white Southerners did to her son. And see it, the world did. Tens of thousands attended the funeral or viewed his open casket. Black-oriented newspapers and magazines published the image of his bloated, mutilated body, again heightening awareness of the lack of civil rights in the South. Three months after the trial, the Montgomery bus boycott began, resulting in the Supreme Court ruling that segregated buses were unconstitutional. Finally, on March 29, 2022, President Joe Biden signed the Emmitt Till Antilynching Act into law, making lynching a federal hate crime. And in 2018, the government finally vacated Isaac Woodard’s disorderly conduct charge.

Race minorities are not the only out-crowds fighting for justice. LGBTQ+ have been openly battling discrimination for decades, even though society has made significant progress with the legalization of same-sex marriages and anti-discrimination laws in housing and lending. But the world remains far from perfect if you are LGBTQ+. All you need to do is point to the recent mass shooting at a gay-friendly bar in Colorado Springs. But such discrimination is more systemic. A current Center for American Progress study found 36 percent of all LGBTQ+ Americans said they experienced discrimination over the past year, and 69 percent of non-binary people reported discrimination during that period. The rate of discrimination against transgender Americans was 60 percent. And for young adults, it was even worse—two-thirds of LGBTQ+ youths reported discrimination during the past year.

Another of my favorite movies shown at the Austin Film Festival was The Inspection,[ii] a film inspired by the life of its director, Elegance Bratton. In the movie, a young, gay African-American, rejected by his mom, joins the Marines. But in that world of “manly men,” the young man battles deep-seated prejudice. But through it all, he finds camaraderie and support despite his sexual preferences and a new sense of belonging—which brings hope to all of us that the world will improve. Here is the trailer:

Fifty years ago, if someone told me the Supreme Court would legalize same-sex marriages, I would have told them they were living in a fantasy world. But dreams sometimes come true. The Supreme Court did just that in 2015. And Congress recently passed the Respect for Marriage Act, which repeals the Defense of Marriage Act that defined marriage as between one man and one woman. The Act also requires states to recognize legal same-sex marriages performed in other states. President Biden, who we expect will sign the bill, said, ”The United States is on the brink of reaffirming a fundamental truth: love is love, and Americans should have the right o marry the person they love.”

The Senate, however, added provisions bolstering religious liberty protections. As amended, the Act now states that religious organizations (including churches and religious schools) will not be required to provide services, facilities, or goods for same-sex marriages. It also ensures the IRS cannot use the Act to deny or alter benefits or the tax-exempt status of such organizations.

Opponents of these amendments claim they allow discrimination against LGBTQ+ under the guise of religious belief. And so, the battle for complete justice for these members of many people’s out-crowd continues.

Even women often find themselves as part of the out-crowd. For example, a 2018 survey found that 77 percent of women have experienced verbal sexual harassment, and 51 percent had been sexually touched without their permission. The recently released film, She Said[iii] is the true story of how New York Times reporters Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor broke the story of the constant sexual harassment of women by Harvey Weinstein. Here is the trailer for the movie:

These women received some justice when the courts sentenced Weinstein to 23 years in prison. After the initial three women came forward, a total of 82 victims made claims against Weinstein. But more importantly, the actions of these women sparked the #MeToo movement that toppled many prominent sexual harassers, both in Hollywood and elsewhere. And recently, New York City, for the first time in its history, has women heading its fire department and police department. Perhaps women are finally getting their due. As someone once said, “All things come to him [her] who waits—even justice.

Benjamin Franklin once said, “Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.” Therefore, when we see injustice, we must speak out until those wrongs are righted. By taking a stand, we can make the world a happier and more just place.

Let’s do our part to ensure justice for all is a reality, for as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to injustice everywhere.”

[i] Till:

  • Production Companies: Eon Productions, Frederick Zollo Productions, and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
  • Director: Chinonye Chukwu
  • Screenwriters: Michael Reily, Keith Beauchamp, and Chinonye Chukwu
  • Starring: Danielle Deadwyler, Jalyn Hall, and Frankie Faison
  • Release date: October 28, 2022

[ii] The Inspection:

  • Production Companies: Freedom Principle and Gamechanger Films
  • Director: Elegance Bratton
  • Screenwriter: Elegence Bratton
  • Starring: Jeremy Pope, Gabrrielle Union, and Bokeem Woodbine
  • Release date: October 14, 2022

[iii] She Said:

  • Production Companies: Universal Pictures, Annapurna Pictures,. And Plan B Entertainment
  • Director: Maria Schrader
  • Screenwriter: Rebecca Lenkiewicz, Jodi Kantor, and Megan Twohey
  • Starring: Carey Mulligan, Zoe Kazan, and Patricia Clarkson
  • Release date: November 18, 2022

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