Every report of police overreaching with black males — the national spectacles like those involving Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner and the local ones that catch only passing notice in the press — summons a memory from my distant youth.
It was 1954 and, as a callow high school kid from the woods pressed into service as a reporter for the local dailies, I was sent in the evenings to the El Dorado police station, where a little news for the morning paper was most likely to occur. The patrols usually brought a haul of drunks and vagrants, an abusive spouse, a wreck or two and perhaps a liquor-store robbery. Two policemen brought in a skinny and aging black man, so drunk and docile that he could barely stand. One of the cops was having fun with him, poking him in the ribs with his nightstick and using the racial epithet so common to our culture.
Before herding him to his cell, they emptied his pockets and put the refuse on the desk sergeant's counter. Seeing his billfold lying on the counter, the old man reached instinctively for it. The cop with the nightstick slammed it hard on the hand, surely crushing the bones. The man fell to the floor with a wail. The arresting officers and the desk sergeant laughed and then dragged and prodded him back to a cell, where he vomited on them, which brought another volley of whacks and epithets. I would see many variations of the scene, always involving black men. A drunken white man earned a little more respect.
Though having grown up amid every vestige of segregation (I went to school and my black playmate didn't), it was for an unobservant white boy the first recognition of the unjust social order in which he lived. He began then to see it everywhere.
When I returned to the Daily News office and described the incident to J.D., the night editor, a middle-aged bachelor who was good to me and valuable for my career, he got a kick out of it. "That's why we have cops," he said.
The policemen were not especially to blame. We were all racists.
If we are to have a national dialogue about race and the law, which is the usual refrain after a spate of killings of unarmed black men or some such incidents, it ought to involve more than the edgy cops who do the deeds that our polite society finds acceptable and even worthy.
Like the rest of the South and Northern cities as well, Arkansas has a rich history of experience with this matter of race and the law that it can bring to bear if a pointless national dialogue indeed were to occur.
Some years ago, my friend Bob Lancaster and I started to work on a book that would be a collection of articles from the 172 years of the old Arkansas Gazette that would catch the flavor of the Gray Lady and the state's colorful history. The project ended, for my part, in grief over what the book would have to include: the great newspaper's rich accounts of lynchings, vigilantes and posses that people thought kept them safe from the uncivilized minority.
The stories sometimes came almost daily and were written with verve and attention to sickening detail. Some objectivity crept into the stories well into the reign of the Gazette's longtime owner and editor, Ned Heiskell, and the paper came around to opposing lynch law editorially.
The stories ended with excited descriptions of the black man's end.
Young Jim Beavers was grabbed by a posse after a "young white lady" said he had accosted her on the street in Wilmar when she was walking to school.
"The brute was captured about 3 o'clock this evening about a mile below Wilmar and was taken back to near the place where he committed the deed and hung to a limb. Fifty or sixty shots were fired into his swinging carcass. It runs in the family. Jim Beavers is brother of Jeff Beavers, who was hung here about a year ago for a similar offense."
There was the case of Ed Coy, "the negro brute who outraged Mrs. Henry Jewell, a respectable woman," at her home in Texarkana. Separate jubilant accounts by the Gazette's reporter and the Associated Press of his torture and burning by a screaming crowd of 1,000 took up three full columns of the paper's front page.
"At 3 o'clock he was tied to a stake near the Iron Mountain roundhouse, saturated with oil, and burned to death, Mrs. Jewell, the outraged woman, applying the torch," the paper's correspondent wrote. "He died protesting his innocence, though he was identified to the very fullest extent."
Four months later, an editorial in the Gazette praised a posse that had captured a "negro brute" who was accused of molesting a child in the home where he worked, hanged him to a telephone pole and riddled his body with bullets.
"There are times when that higher law which discards legal forms, and marches in a straight line to the execution of its awful decrees, supersedes all other tribunals, and, swift and relentless, hurls the thunderbolts of vengeance against is victims," the editor waxed. "The brute who assaulted Maggie Doxey yielded his worthless life to this higher law."
But that is old stuff and we are all better than that now, aren't we? It's only the occasional Texas congressman or public official who uses racial slurs in talking about the president of the United States (like the New Hampshire police commissioner who recently called him "that f****** nigger").
The loathing of the last century has given way to mere fear of black men and kids who, as Mike Huckabee said, have thuggish attitudes. That's much better.