October 3, 1995, brought my worst experience at the University of Memphis. I was a senior, and that day, with the verdict due in O.J. Simpson’s murder trial, the Journalism Department herded everybody together on the first floor to watch. A tiny part of me believed the Juice might walk, because, with juries, like when a prizefight goes to the judges’ scorecards, you never know. But nothing prepared me for what happened in that crowded auditorium.
The University of Memphis is a public school. It’s accessible, affordable, and its student body reflects the city, so a majority of the students, probably about 60 percent, were African-American. The Journalism Department was about 60 percent African-American, too, and when all the black students started raucously cheering and high-fiving after the verdict was read, this white boy from Sanford was dumbfounded. They acted like they had won something, like a great thing had happened, which disgusted me so much that I wanted to puke in my Red Sox cap. A few minutes later, two really funny black girls, classmates whom I constantly joked around with, saw how shocked I was and delighted in letting me have it, rubbing it in so much that, like Cartman in South Park, I left (screw you guys, I’m going home).
But given time to reflect, I understood why the black students cheered. It had nothing to do with Simpson’s guilt or innocence. They cheered because a black man had finally “gotten over.” I grasped it intellectually, but since I have never experienced the oppression and unfairness that black people endured (in courtrooms and elsewhere) over the course of American history, their joy seemed grotesque. It still does, actually, but I understand.
Given all that, when O.J. was convicted of a slew of felony charges (he and some flunkies barged into a Las Vegas hotel suite brandishing a gun at people whom O.J. thought had stolen his sports memorabilia) exactly 13 years to the day of his murder acquittal, on October 3, 2008, I was psyched. I think Simpson should have been in jail this whole time, but remember, the murderous Al Capone finally went to Alcatraz on tax-evasion charges. O.J. faces the prospect of life imprisonment, and that suits me fine, but I don’t want to sneer and applaud, just applaud. And while this recent conviction may remind me of that confusing celebration 13 years ago in Meeman Hall, it also reminds me of ... Barack Obama.
Like Mojo Nixon sang, Orenthal James was a mighty bad man. O.J.’s murder trial, especially his defense and ultimate acquittal, exposed the racial fault lines in our society. How you felt about that acquittal largely broke down along racial lines, despite the fact that, before the trial, to white America, O.J. was closer to Wayne Brady than Bobby Seale on the dangerous-black-man spectrum. That day in 1995, surrounded by black students who were celebrating for reasons that might have ultimately been wrong (despite the fact that they came by those reasons honestly), made me wonder if America would ever get past all that crap.
Now I think about how far we’ve come in 13 years. Instead of a black man with a funny sounding O-name exploiting racial hostility to escape responsibility, another black man with a funny sounding O-name might just transcend racial hostility to gain responsibilities, huge ones. That’s progress. That’s a breakthrough, and if it happens, that will be something the journalism students in Meeman Hall, down in Memphis, the city where Martin Luther King was shot, can cheer about together, whatever their color.
Rick Wormwood can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.