Bob Neal

“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” Dr. Martin Luther King told us four days before he was murdered. He didn’t say it bends steadily or quickly.

From court decisions last week in Virginia, Georgia and Wisconsin, we can assess whether the arc is, in fact, bending toward justice.

Recap. A federal civil jury in Charlottesville, Virginia, held organizers of the lethal “Unite the Right” rally in 2017 liable for $25 million in damages. A mostly white jury in Brunswick, Georgia, found three white vigilantes guilty of murdering a Black man jogging through a white neighborhood. And a jury in Kenosha, Wisconsin, held a white man innocent of murdering two white racial-justice protesters.

King’s speech on March 31, 1968, at the National Cathedral held hope that justice would eventually prevail and that Black America would overcome. Then, he left for Memphis.

Let’s set the starting point on our arc of the moral universe at July 16, 1949. That’s the date a 17-year-old told police she had been raped and her husband beaten by four young Black men in Groveland, Florida. The young men, now known as the “Groveland Four,” never had a chance against a system rigged to defeat them. And in this case, kill them.

The sheriff shot all four, killing one. One escaped and was killed by more than 400 bullets fired by a sheriff’s posse. The other two were convicted and each served more than a decade in prison. Both have died.

The FBI testified in the trial that the prosecution and sheriff had faked evidence. That was Florida in 1949. In 2021 in Florida, a judge exonerated the Groveland Four. Too late to help them, but still the “crime” has been expunged. Officially.

From that bleak beginning, we move to Charlottesville, where an anti-alt-right protester was run over and killed by a rallier, who is now serving life for killing her. The jury held him liable for nearly half the $25 million in damages awarded and ordered 12 individual organizers to pay $500,000 each and five of their organizations to pay $1 million each.

Even for alt-right organizations which raise funds easily on anti-social-media sites, $25 million is a bunch of bucks. In my book, finding these thugs culpable is a big bend toward justice by the arc of the universe.

It is difficult to see how even a jury of nine white women, two white men and a Black man could not convict the three vigilantes who murdered Ahmaud Arbery. When a jogger running through the streets is attacked by men in pickups, one wielding a shotgun, it is hard to keep a straight face when their attorney says “self-defense.”

Those vigilantes played right into the hands of observers who would stereotype them as rednecks. One was so numb he gave police the video he had shot of them murdering Arbery. All three face life terms. No sentencing date has been sent.

The key word in this whole sad story is “Georgia.” Even though two prosecutors would not seek indictments of white men killing a Black man, the case seemed open and shut. But, it was in Georgia. Eventually, enough right-thinking white people turned up to get an honest investigation, indictments and convictions.

If Georgia can come crawling into the 20th century, who’s to say others in Dixie can’t?

But can Wisconsin? The state that gave us both Robert LaFollette, the progressive’s progressive (and a Republican), and Joseph McCarthy, the red-baiter’s red-baiter.

In Kenosha, Kyle Rittenhouse was acquitted of murdering two white men protesting the shooting of Jacob Blake, an unarmed Black man. Rittenhouse also claimed self-defense.

Judges in Wisconsin are elected, so the judge in Kenosha who refused even to let prosecutors call Rittenhouse’s victims “victims,” may have had an eye on his re-election.

The prosecution, by press reports, offered a weak case, so Rittenhouse’s acquittal didn’t surprise me. Here is what bothers me, though. Rittenhouse went to Kenosha from his home in Illinois as a provocateur. He carried a rifle like an AR-15. The police didn’t ask anyone else to help protect their city from demonstrations against the shooting of Blake.

What worked for Rittenhouse in Wisconsin didn’t work for the vigilantes in Georgia. I’m scared that in future this defense will become common: “I came with a gun to a public place. Because I had the gun, I was a target, and it was necessary to defend myself. So I killed people who didn’t have a gun. In self-defense.”

If that is our future, we could be returning to the days of the Wild West. Which, as portrayed by Hollywood, never happened.

Bob Neal is gratified to see good things happen in places where they seldom happened before. Nothing that happens these days in his native Wisconsin surprises him, though. Neal can be reached at [email protected].

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