O.J. Simpson, his first wife, Marguerite, and daughter Arnelle at home in Bel-Air, California (Wikimedia Commons)

The death of football phenom, advertising pitchman, movie actor, and accused murderer O. J. Simpson earlier this month brought forth an avalanche of commentary from those who remember the impact his trial and acquittal had on the country. Like many others, I remember exactly where I was when the verdict came down in 1995. I was in Commonweal’s offices on Dutch Street in lower Manhattan.

It was a somewhat derelict building on what was essentially an alley between Fulton and John Streets near the Financial District. Several blocks to the east was the South Street Seaport; farther to the west were the colossal Twin Towers of the World Trade Center. The building where we worked was only three or four stories tall, a dwarf among giants, yet there was a skylight in our conference room from which you could view the towers—a poignant memory. There was no security at the building, and our offices were broken into several times, once through the wall in the corridor outside the office. The freight elevator we used had a mind of its own. Still, the place had a certain hardscrabble charm, and the small Commonweal staff, both editorial and administrative, was a convivial group.

On that April day in 1995, I was working at a now-antique computer when I heard a commotion coming from the front of the office, where the administrative staff of three or four worked. When I ventured down the hall to find out what the noise was about, I learned that it was a celebration of Simpson’s acquittal for the murder of Nichole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. Brown was Simpson’s ex-wife, the mother of two of his children, and Goldman was her friend. Both were slashed to death with a knife; Brown was nearly decapitated. Nothing, then or since, has seriously weakened the case against Simpson, who spent his final years as a pensioner in Florida after a stint in prison for a different crime.

Like most white people, I was shocked by the verdict and even more by the reaction of some of our staff. I was especially perplexed by the response of one young Black woman, the mother of two or three young children who had impressed me as someone of remarkable diligence and sturdy common sense. She lived in New Jersey and was married to a firefighter, and she often spoke of their desire to buy a house. At one point, she brought a fundraising calendar to the office, which featured beefcake photos of firemen, including her husband. Like her, he was exceptionally good-looking. I remember her shy, giggling response when some of us teased her good-naturedly about the muscle-bound photo of her husband. I believe they were high-school sweethearts. At the time, it seemed like a natural exchange between colleagues, unencumbered by racial overtones. Perhaps I was naïve. On that later day in April, we spoke only briefly. I expressed astonishment at the verdict and surprise at her reaction. If I remember correctly, she simply said that she thought Simpson had been framed.


I grew up in a wealthy and mostly liberal, if inevitably segregated, Connecticut suburb of New York. I then went to Wesleyan, an elite, very liberal university in Middletown, Connecticut. Wesleyan was one of the first schools to adopt an ambitious affirmative-action program, and 20 percent of my all-male class was Black. We matriculated in 1969, at the height of the Black Power and anti-Vietnam war movements. At the time, I thought the Civil Rights Movement, exemplified by Martin Luther King Jr., was the most courageous, inspiring, and consequential force for justice in American history. I still do. That it was a movement rooted in the Black Church helped to shape my views on the essential role of religion in American politics, which in turn led me to Commonweal.

But after King’s assassination in 1968, the movement for racial justice took an often violent turn toward militancy and Black separatism. That was certainly the case at Wesleyan, where race relations were a tinder box. As I have written before, the Black Panthers were a presence on campus. The body of one murdered Black Panther from New Haven, suspected of being an FBI informer, was dumped in the woods not far from campus. There were fights and incidents with guns, knives, and even arson. Racial strife had troubled the campus for years, prompting a cover story in the New York Times Magazine titled “The Two Nations at Wesleyan University.” “With rare exceptions,” the Times reported, “white students and black students do not even talk to each other.” That was true. “Solomon,” the Times reporter concluded, “would have been overwhelmed at Wesleyan.”

Like most white people, I was shocked by the verdict and even more by the reaction of some of our staff.

More than twenty years after the racial antagonism and chaos I had experience in college, it was bewildering and depressing to discover such a profound difference of response to the O.J. verdict between me and a Black person I liked and worked with. I know the arguments explaining why the mostly Black jury in Los Angeles acquitted Simpson. Yes, the LAPD was notoriously racist. Yes, just a few years earlier the police officers who had brutally beaten Rodney King were acquitted. Yes, the prosecution bungled important parts of the case. Yes, the history of the American justice system is a travesty when it comes to Black Americans. But even many Black Americans who welcomed the verdict were willing to admit Simpson’s guilt. I remain puzzled by how the injustice of the Simpson verdict improved the chances of fairness for Black people in the judicial system, or how it could have righted grievous historical wrongs. It seemed at best a pyrrhic victory. Simpson, a very rich man who was notoriously indifferent to questions of racial justice until he was accused of murder, reputedly paid $7 million to the “dream team” of defense lawyers who got him off the hook by means of various theatrical legal shenanigans (“If the glove don’t fit, you must acquit”). Wasn’t that just another instance of justice for sale? How did that help most Black Americans?   

The strategy of Simpson’s lawyers was to put allegations of racial discrimination at the center of the trial, constantly obfuscating the fate of the two brutally murdered victims. It was no secret that Simpson had assaulted Nicole Brown dozens of times before she was killed. She had repeatedly asked for help from the police, telling them at one point “He’s going to kill me.” But Simpson’s celebrity had evidently shielded him from police scrutiny.

In any murder trial, the hardest thing to do is to make the lives of the absent victims real to the jury. Simpson’s lawyers made that impossible by transforming the trial into a case about Simpson’s race. In his book The Killing of Bonnie Garland, psychiatrist and bioethicist Willard Gaylin examined a case somewhat similar to Nichole Brown’s murder. Bonnie Garland was a Yale student from wealthy Westchester County in New York. At Yale, she became romantically involved with Richard Herrin, a Hispanic student from Los Angeles. When Garland broke off the relationship, Herrin killed her by bashing in her skull with a hammer while she was sleeping. At trial, Herrin’s lawyers argued that his ethnic, economic, and social background mitigated his guilt, and he was convicted of manslaughter rather than murder. “Bonnie was never present at her own trial,” Gaylin wrote in frustration over the incommensurability of the verdict to the brutal and premeditated nature of the crime. “Her life and her worth were being tried and tested, along with Richard’s. Nowhere in that courtroom was there anyone present to tell her story. Without the voice from the grave, she appeared only as a chapter in Richard’s story. They approached her only as a vehicle for understanding Richard, and in so doing they violated that fundamental imperative of Kant that one never use a person only as a means to an end. But then, by the time of the trial, Bonnie was no longer a person.” By the time of O. J.’s trial, Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman were no longer persons either. But as Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

It was no secret that Simpson had assaulted Nicole Brown dozens of times before she was killed.


Last May, I attended my fiftieth college reunion. There were a number of panel discussions about our time at the university, including one organized by Black members of our class. Much to my surprise—even astonishment—the theme of the program was about Black separatism on campus, and why it had been a mistake. The organizers lamented the fact that they had shut down almost all contact with white students, noting that their experience would have been richer, and there would have been less racial strife, if such artificial barriers had not been so strictly enforced by the Black students themselves. When the discussion was opened for questions from the audience, one of my white classmates rose to tell of his experience of race relations at Wesleyan. Late one night, he was unable to sleep because of loud music being played in the dorm room directly under him. He went downstairs, knocked on the door, and politely asked the Black occupant to lower the music. The occupant’s response was to punch him in the face. That incident took place two doors from my room but on the other side of a fire door, which separated our racially divided hall and was usually closed.

My classmate told this story with a wry sense of irony. The reaction from the mixed but largely white audience was one of amused recognition. With a dramatic flourish, the speaker then turned to the Black alum sitting behind him and announced that the two of them had eventually gotten over the incident. The men then hugged and laughed, and the audience applauded.

I was grateful, and humbled, by the gestures of reconciliation my Black classmates made. At least we were finally talking to one another, although the Black and white alums still sat at separate tables during dinner. It has taken fifty years to begin some sort of dialogue, but that is progress of a sort. As our current political divides demonstrate, when it comes to race, justice and mutual understanding remain elusive. However far we’ve come, we still have a long way to go.

Paul Baumann is Commonweal’s senior writer.

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