By Leslye Joy Allen
Historian, Educator, Theatre and Jazz Advocate & Consultant, Doctoral Student
Copyright © 2012 by Leslye Joy Allen. All Rights Reserved.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the late Ralph McGill (1898-1969), he was a White journalist and publisher of the old Atlanta Constitution (now the Atlanta Journal Constitution). He was also a well-known liberal who wrote about racial discrimination in society at large and within the criminal justice system. He did this long before the Civil Rights Movement reached its apogee in the 1960s. Martin Luther King, Jr. mentioned McGill in his eloquent “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.” King wrote that McGill and some other White journalists, “have written about our struggle in eloquent, prophetic and understanding terms.” Indeed, McGill was a man who watched, learned, and evolved into one of the most progressive voices in the American South and the nation when it came to race relations, civil rights, and the penal system. With that said, it is important for you to understand that I did not learn about Ralph McGill from a newspaper or a book, but rather from my schoolteacher mother.
Mama remembered that he emphasized that when a Black person killed another Black person they typically received very light jail or prison sentences—that is, if they received any jail time at all. It was just the opposite if they had killed a White person. He noted that because of this failure to properly punish Black people who killed other Black people, the judicial system literally encouraged those individuals to carry out their anger to its fullest possible extreme. He accused the judicial system of encouraging Black folks to kill each other. Mama said that there was an unsettling joke going around in Atlanta during the 1940s that said: if you were a Black man that killed another Black man you would be out of jail in time to go to your victim’s funeral. Indeed, in his column in the Atlanta Constitution on September 17, 1941, McGill wrote:
“In the first place our courts, to our shame and, although no one seems to see it, to our very great financial cost, never take Negro crime seriously. A Negro murderer, killing another Negro, rarely receives any severe punishment. Juries and prosecutors have, for years, viewed them lightly as just another Negro killing, and therefore, of not much importance.” (Ralph McGill – Crime, Standards, Methods 9-17-1941)
He remained one of a handful of White journalists that understood that any law or process or social practice that devalued Black life also made Black people the more likely targets of violence by killers of all races. He also noted that many members of Atlanta’s then all-White police department had poor training and were “quick-on-the-trigger.”
I thought about Ralph McGill after the tragic killing of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida in February of 2012. When Jordan Davis of Atlanta, Georgia was killed in Jacksonville, Florida later in November, I again thought about McGill, arguably one of the most vocal writers who paid serious attention to Black-on-Black and White-on-Black violence and the institutionalized racism in the criminal justice systems of Georgia and the nation. I will not recount how Jordan Davis and Trayvon Martin died needless and preventable deaths. I will leave it to you to read the details of Davis’ death on your own. (Take a minute and read Madison Gray’s very brief Time Magazine report “With Echoes of Trayvon Martin, Florida Man Claims Self Defense in Shooting Death of Teen.”) Yet, I wonder what McGill might have said about the horrible killings of these two unarmed Black teenagers by two men—One of Peruvian and Jewish extraction and the other a White man. I am sure he would have had much to say about the racial dynamics surrounding these two killings and the law known as “Stand Your Ground.”
Nearly half the states in this country have “Stand Your Ground” laws. At minimum, these laws allow an individual the right to use deadly force if that individual has a reasonable belief that their lives are threatened. Importantly, the law typically states that it is not necessary for a threatened individual to retreat from the perceived danger. The jury is still out on whether this kind of law has reduced crime rates anywhere. It is important to note, however, that there is nothing in these laws that give citizens the right to provoke and/or create a potentially volatile scenario where they place themselves in danger and then use deadly force in response to the dangerous scenario they created.
The fact that George Zimmerman, charged with second degree murder of Trayvon Martin, was told by a 911 operator not to follow Martin, has forced Zimmerman’s attorneys to drop the use of “Stand Your Ground” as a part of his defense is cause for all of us to pause. The fact that Michael Dunn, charged with the murder of Jordan Davis (and also charged with attempted murder of the other teens in the SUV), told these kids to turn their music down at a gas station is also problematic. Most people do not stay at a gas station for very long. Is it safe or even logical to tell total strangers what to do or what not to do while they are seated in their own vehicles at a public place like a gas station at 7:30 in the evening? Think about it. Will Florida lawmakers ever understand that the state’s “Stand Your Ground” laws are not always working in the best interests of its citizens? McGill would have recognized the counterproductive and dangerous potential for abuse in “Stand Your Ground” legislation.
When I finally got the opportunity to read some of the newspaper columns written by McGill, I noticed some important qualities: He spoke his mind about what was going on in the city and the world at that moment. Yet, he did so with an eye on the future. Like many of Atlanta’s early boosters, he always prescribed the course of action that he believed was best for the city of Atlanta—the entire city of Atlanta. He knew that crime, racial discrimination, racial virulence, and the like, were bad for the city. He was as practical and he was ethical.
I do not know exactly what McGill might have said or asked about the killings of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis. Yet, I have little doubt that he would understand and endorse the necessity of raising the following questions about how citizens interpret their rights as defined in “Stand Your Ground” law: How does the “Stand Your Ground” law define “feeling threatened”? If you look menacing or say something that makes me feel afraid, will the law allow me the right to use deadly force against you based solely on my assumption of what I think you might do? Do citizens need more than the basic right of self-defense? What might an angry person do if they are armed and know that they might be able to get away with killing someone because, by law, they do not have to retreat from danger? Much like Atlanta in 1941, does not this law encourage people to choose to kill one another? Don’t these kind of laws eventually breed a flagrant disregard for the law? McGill wrote that, “Anything that breeds contempt for the law is costly.” He was right.
When I asked my Mama why she liked Ralph McGill, she simply said,
“He made sense and he was always, always fair. He always asked for justice and the fair treatment of all citizens. Justice and fair treatment were the only things Black people wanted.”
Justice and fair treatment are still all we want.
Copyright © 2012 by Leslye Joy Allen. All Rights Reserved.
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