The Murder of an Unarmed Black Man By a South Carolina Cop Is Part of a Long, Sick American Tradition

An unarmed man shot in the back. An innocent man released after serving 30 years on death row. The centennial of Billie Holiday’s birth. These are the stories that emanated from my radio Tuesday, and all bear a common thread: the devaluing of black life.


The biggest news, of course, came from North Charleston, South Carolina, where Walter Scott, an unarmed black man, was shot in the back by a white police officer after fleeing on foot from the scene of a “routine traffic stop”—also known in some parts as “driving while black.”  One difference this time: The cop was charged with murder after a damning cell-phone video, shot by a bystander, was provided to state authorities, and then posted on the website of the Charleston Post and Courier.

Scott was shot eight times. The video shows the officer, Michael T. Slager, dropping an object, which appears to be his Taser stun-gun, next to Scott’s body. Slager told his bosses that Scott had grabbed the Taser from him. In truth, it seems that what Scott was killed for was not any threat he posed to the officer's life, but rather to ego of a white cop who couldn't bear to have his authority defied by a black man. Think about Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Isn't that ultimately why they died?

It may seem that police killings of black people—and general harassment of African Americans by law enforcement—are on the rise, but chances are that they are not. Chances are better than good that this is the way it’s always been. It’s just that citizens are now able to shoot videos with their phones, and to take to social media to howl about injustice the moment it occurs.

Take the case of Anthony Ray Hinton, 58, just released from Alabama’s death row after spending half his life there for two 1985 murders he didn’t commit. His conviction was based on police assertions that the bullets found at the scene of the crime matched a gun found in his mother’s house. But, when both were tested decades later, they didn’t. Here’s how Hinton explained his predicament to the BBC:

He said he was told by police the crime would be "put on him" and there were five things that would convict him.

"The police said: 'First of all you're black, second of all you've been in prison before, third, you're going to have a white judge, fourth, you're more than likely to have a white jury, and fifth, when the prosecution get to putting this case together you know what that spells? Conviction, conviction, conviction, conviction, conviction.' He was [right] and that's what happened."

He said: "I think if I'd have been white they would have tested the gun and said it don't match and I would have been released, but when you're poor and black in America you stand a higher chance of going to prison for something you didn't do."

Tuesday also brought human-interest stories marking 100 years since the birth of the great jazz innovator, Billie Holiday—meaning that, if, like me, you listen to the kind of radio that celebrates America’s classical music (because that’s what jazz is), you may have caught the iconic strains of Holiday’s brutally graphic tour de force lament of lynching, the centuries-old practice of white mobs hunting down a black person, torturing and mutilating that person, and then usually hanging the body from a tree. For those unfamiliar, here are the opening lines (lyric by Abel Meeropol):

Southern trees bear a strange fruit

Blood on the leaves, and blood at the root

Black body swingin’ in the Southern breeze

Strange fruit hangin’ from the poplar trees

But you should really listen to the whole thing. Every American should. In fact, it should be part of the Common Core curriculum. Because until we understand this legacy—our national legacy—it’s hard to see how things will ever truly change, except, perhaps, by matter of degree.

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