Colbert I. king writes in the Washington Post:
“How is it possible in a country that prides itself on having a Bill of Rights, expresses reverence for due process and touts equal protection that a 17-year-old can be arrested, put on trial and sentenced to death, and then spend 13 years being shuttled among death row cellblocks in disgusting jails and prisons with his case under appeal, all for a crime he didn’t commit?
The answer contains some simple prerequisites: He had to be black, live in the Jim Crow South and be accused of committing, as one deputy sheriff put it, a “supreme offense, on the same level of a white woman being raped by a black man” — that is, the murder of a white police officer.
Teenager Caliph Washington, a native of Bessemer, Ala., was on the receiving end of all three conditions. And as such, Washington became a sure-fire candidate to suffer the kind of tyrannical law enforcement and rotten jurisprudence that Southern justice reserved for blacks of any age.
In “He Calls Me by Lightning,” S. Jonathan Bass, a professor at Alabama’s Samford University and a son of Bessemer parents, resurrects the life of Washington, who died in 2001 finally out of prison — but with charges still hanging over his head.
Bass, however, does more than tell Washington’s tale, as Washington’s widow, Christine, had asked him to do in a phone call. Bass dives deeply into the Bessemer society of 1957 where Washington was accused of shooting white police officer James “Cowboy” Clark on an empty dead-end street near a row of run-down houses on unpaved Exeter Alley.
Bessemer-style justice cannot be known, let alone understood, however, without learning about that neo-hardscrabble town 13 miles southwest of Birmingham.
Bessemer served as home to a sizable black majority, an entrenched white power structure and an all-white police department, consisting at the time of a “ragtag crew of poorly paid, ill-trained, and hot-tempered individuals” who earned less than Bessemer’s street and sanitation workers.
Bessemer was a town with its own quaint racial customs, such as forcing black men to “walk in the middle of the downtown streets, not on the sidewalks, after dark — presumably to keep them from any close contact with white women.”
Bessemer was a town where in 1944 the police forced black prisoners to participate in an Independence Day watermelon run. White citizens reportedly cheered as firefighters blasted the inmates with high-pressure hoses to make the race more challenging. Winners, it is said, received reduced sentences and the watermelons.
It was in that town that Caliph Washington was born in 1939, the same year of my birth in Washington, D.C.
Bessemer’s racial climate was no different the year Washington was accused of killing Cowboy Clark. The town’s prevailing attitude on race was captured at the time in a pamphlet distributed by a segregationist group, the Bessemer Citizens’ Council. Black Christians, the white citizens’ council said, should remain content with being “our brothers in Christ without also wanting to become our brothers-in-law.”
If ever there was a place to not get caught “driving while black” — which is what Washington was doing on that fateful night in July 1957 — it was Bessemer. And that night’s hazard appeared in the form of Clark and his partner, Thurman Avery, who were cruising the streets in their patrol car looking for whiskey bootleggers.”
Read the rest of King’s op-ed at the link.
So, when you hear Sessions and his White Nationalist buddies like Bannon, Miller, Kobach, and Pence extolling the virtues of a small Federal Government (except for the migrant-bashing mechanisms) state control of voting, civil rights, police conduct, gender fairness, environmental regulations, labor relations, filling the prisons with maximum sentences, a new war on drugs, etc., it’s just clever code for “let’s make sure that white-dominated state and local governments can keep blacks, hispanics, immigrants, Muslims, and other minorities from achieving power, equality, and a fair share of the pie.” After all, if you believe, as these guys do, that true democracy can be a bad thing if it means diversity and power sharing, then you’re going to abuse the legal and political systems any way you can to maintain your hold on power.
And, of course, right-wing pontificating about the “rule of law” means nothing other than selective application of some laws to the disadvantage of minorities, immigrants, and often women. You can see how selective Sessions’s commitment to the rule of law is when he withdraws DOJ participation in voting rights cases in the face of strong evidence of racial gerrymandering, withdraws support from protections for LGBT individuals, supports imprisonment in substandard prisons, targets legal marijuana, and “green lights” troubled police departments to prioritize aggressive law enforcement over the protection of minority citizens’ rights. Ethics laws, in particular, seems to be far removed from the Sessions/Trump concept of “Rule of Law.” And, sadly, this is only the beginning of the Trump Administration’s assault on our Constitution, our fundamental values, and the “real” “Rule of Law.”