Martin Luther King is dead, but racism lives in the USA

Scotland on Sunday diary column, January 18 1988

Junior Garner had only one problem, and on Christmas Day it cost him his life. That evening he left his wife and six children at home in Louisiana and drove off in his old pick-up truck with two friends through the pine woods into Texas. It was only a 30-mile trip to collect a car.

Soon after they crossed the state border and entered Sabine County, Junior and his friends were stopped by some policemen who accused them of being drunk and took them to the Sabine County Jail in Hemphill and locked them up. After a while, the three of them started banging on their cell doors, protesting that they had done nothing, demanding to be let out, saying they wanted to telephone their families to tell them where they were. One of Junior’s friends, Alton Maxie, has told what happened next.

He says two policemen came down to the cells and asked who was making all the noise. When Junior told them he wanted to call his wife, Alton says, they went into Junior’s cell and started punching him, then they dragged him down the corridor to a private room where they beat him some more. Alton says he could hear the thumping and moaning down the corridor.

“They took me out there,” he said, “and asked me if I wanted some. They got in my face and said then I better go back there and keep my mouth shut.” By the time they dumped Junior back on his cell floor later that Christmas night, his shirt was soaked with blood and his face was all bruised and swollen out of shape. He lay there all night breathing heavily but without moving. The next day they took him to hospital, where he lay in a coma for 48 hours and then died. He was 34.

This problem that cost Junior Garner his life is a simple one: he was a black man who went into a white man’s town.

Americans do not like to think that their society is racist. They take their democracy very seriously and they genuinely believe in their constitution with its guarantees of equality and justice in a way which can be hard for cynical outsiders to appreciate. They may acknowledge that blacks were oppressed in the past, but today, in particular, as the United States observes a public holiday in memory of Martin Luther King, they point to the great civil rights upheaval of the 1960s as evidence that they have changed all that.

It is true that there have been remarkable achievements in fighting racism: Martin Luther King’s movement swept away the spurious legitimacy of the Jim Crow south; black people have now penetrated jobs which only a generation ago were held far beyond their reach; and there is a healthy, burgeoning black middle class, a key factor for the future and one which other countries with race problems have yet to emulate. But this simple success story does not tell the whole truth, as Junior Garner discovered.

He was the sort of black man who might otherwise have been held up as an example of the American racial success story. He had a good job as a truck driver, supported his family, had never been in any trouble and was well liked by black and white neighbours. “To put it mildly, I think Junior Garner was one of the finest men I met in my life, white or black,” according to Stan Self, a white friend from Louisiana.

But he was living in an area where it is only 120 years since black men, women and children were bought and sold as slaves, where only 20 years ago blacks could not sit on the same bus seats as white people let alone share their schools or hospitals, and where the Ku Klux Klan remains a powerful force to this day. In Sabine County, where he died, half the population is black, but all of the policemen are white. The sheriff and his deputies are white, too, and so are all the politicians in the Sabine County Commission and the Hemphill City Council. Black people in Sabine County say that living here means living carefully.

Eight days after he died, as a mute rage spread through the black community, the local criminal justice machine cranked slowly into action. It is a measure of the success of the American battle against racism that the chief of police and two of his men were indicted for Junior Garner’s death. It is a measure of the struggle’s failure that they were indicted not for murdering him, but for violating his civil rights, a technical offence for which a Texan lawyer tells me they are liable to receive two years probation if convicted.

On the day that Junior Garner died, I was in Charleston, South Carolina, a romantic old Southern town which still looks like the set for Gone with the Wind, full of elegant mansions with colonnades and cool verandahs. Down a cobbled back street, I found another face of its past – the old slave mart where thousands of Africans were stored and sold to wealthy whites as house servants and plantation workers.

It is now a museum of slavery, the only one in the United States, but on the day that I was there, its owners were packing up all the exhibits and storing them away in cardboard boxes, closing the museum for good. “Nobody wants to be reminded of slavery,” I was told. “The whites don’t want to know because it makes them feel guilty. The blacks don’t want to know because they think it makes them look primitive.”

I watched as they collected the old metal tags which slaves once wore around their necks so that any white person could stop them and make sure they were not runaways; as they folded up the old bills of sale – “Martha, aged 25, a cripple but a good breeder. Albert, aged 10, foolish. Old Ben, aged 79, a butler and a good negro” – and as they stored away the carving and the weaving and the musical instruments which the slaves had produced in old African style. It was all hidden away.

But burying history like this is a dangerous business, as Martin Luther King recognised. He once said: “A people must know their history before they can know their destiny”. The real danger is that the present as well as the past becomes distorted, allowing Americans to enjoy the comfortable illusion that the battle against racism has been fought and won when the truth is very different, as Junior Garner discovered.

UPDATE: Later in 1988, a local court in Sabine County found that the police chief and his two men were not guilty even of violating Junior Garner’s civil rights. However, a grand jury from neighbouring Smith County, where Garner died in hospital, separately charged the three men with murder. In 1990, all three were convicted and jailed. The police chief, Thomas Ladner, was sentenced to 28 years.

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One of the weirder results of the December arms summit and the new American love affair with the Soviet Union – known as The Gorbasm – has been exhibited in private cinemas in New York this week, where selected audiences have been given a preview of the latest Rambo film, in which our muscle-bound hero storms into Afghanistan and kills more Commies than he can count. The audiences have been booing the film and greeting Rambo’s kills with jeering and hissing. New York film reviewers say Americans have had enough of Commie bashing. A spokesman for Mr Rambo sees it differently. He says blue-collar America still loves Rambo and that the problem is with swanky know-all New Yorkers whom he diplomatically describes as ‘Yuppie swine’.

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The Republican Presidential candidates were in a desperate mood for their big televised debate in Iowa last week. George Bush, whose keenest ambition is to shrug off his wimpish image, whimpered and whined until his chair was placed so that he had a clear view of his wife in the audience. Robert Dole demanded a break in the debate so that his make-up could be touched up and God’s Own Candidate, the Bible Thumping Pat Robertson, stamped his foot and complained that the bright lights would make his eyes look sunken and sinister. Later this year, one of these guys is likely to become the most powerful man in the world.