Those who would skirt trial by jury are reason we need it

March 03, 2001|By GREGORY KANE

WHAT, REALLY, do Americans learn from their history?

Depressingly little, it seems. Lately, some Baltimoreans in particular have been ranting about the right to a trial by jury. Eric Stennett was acquitted in the death of Baltimore police Officer Kevon Gavin. A Baltimore County police officer, Paul Hoke, reacting with alarming dudgeon -- considering that he's a public official who carries a gun -- posted a missive on a police union Web site saying that trial by jury was "a problem." Hoke went on to call Baltimore residents "scum" on welfare who use heroin, and the city itself a place where the womenfolk routinely get pregnant by age 14. His remarks won him the admiration of many and the undying respect of one caller to The Sun, who called blacks "barbaric."

On Wednesday, this column was devoted to Scott Ellsworth, a historian who has studied the Tulsa, Okla., race riot of 1921. Ellsworth spoke at McDonogh School Monday evening to a small gathering that certainly didn't include Hoke, his admirers or anyone else who really needed to be there.

The Paul Hokes of the land have forgotten why we have trials by jury. They seem to forget why jury nullification is a bad idea. Ellsworth, who has written a book about the Tulsa incident, called "Death in a Promised Land," reminded those assembled that our not-too-distant ancestors used the lynch mob as the ultimate expression of jury nullification.

In 1920, a mob of Tulsans grabbed Roy Belton from the city jail. Belton had confessed to shooting Homer Nida, a cabdriver who had identified Belton before dying. The mob took Belton to the site of the shooting. The crowd that gathered to see the hanging was so big that police, who should have stopped the mob, actually directed traffic to the grisly scene. Belton was strung up. The police chief and sheriff pronounced the lynching a benefit to Tulsa.

The Tulsa World expressed a sentiment that should warm the hearts of Baltimore's Hoke contingent:

"There was not a vestige of mob spirit in the act," the Tulsa World trumpeted. "It was citizenship, outraged by government inefficiency and a too tender regard to the professional criminal." Another daily, the Tulsa Tribune, criticized not the lynch mob but the courts and government officials. Only the Tulsa Star, an African-American weekly, condemned the lynching of Belton, an 18-year-old white youth.

A year later, a black youth, 19-year-old Dick Rowland, was about to be lynched by a white mob. Rowland was accused of trying to rape a 16-year-old white girl. When a group of 75 armed black men -- veterans of World War I -- went to the jail and offered to help the sheriff protect Rowland from the mob, they were rebuffed. One member of the mob grabbed one of the black men's weapons. A shot rang out, and the riot erupted.

"The forgotten heroes of the riot are those black vets who went down to the courthouse," Ellsworth said. "They're not there to break Dick Rowland out of jail. They're there to guarantee that he's going to have a jury trial. They're as remarkable as the victims of the Boston Massacre or anything else. Those were martyrs to democratic government."

America honors such martyrs all too infrequently. That's one of the lessons of the Tulsa race riot and why it should be remembered. Another is that Tulsa helps remind Americans who we are, as opposed to who we claim to be.

The freedom-loving American, the American who loves fairness and equality and justice and the right of adversaries to dissent, is an American who is mostly absent from American history. What's more common are those Americans of the Red Scare era of the late 1910s and early 1920s, who supported Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer's jackboot raids to round up radicals, who joined or supported the Ku Klux Klan, who cheered the government when its agents spied on even moderate publishers of black periodicals like the Chicago Defender and the Crisis.

Those same Americans supported the Tulsa mob, which, in 1917, rounded up a group of white radicals in the International Workers of the World, or Wobblies. Charged with vagrancy, the group of 17 was released to a mob that viciously whipped them and poured hot tar and feathers in the wounds. The Tulsa World described the mob as "patriotic."

Ellsworth rightly placed that incident in the beginning of his book as a prelude to what happened in Tulsa four years later. What happened in Tulsa that year didn't happen just to black Americans, it happened to all of us. So did the lynching of Roy Belton and the vigilante whipping of the Wobblies, charged and found guilty of having opinions running counter to those of mainstream Americans.

Our history, African-American and otherwise, should remind us daily that the Founding Fathers didn't add the Bill of Rights to the Constitution to protect us from the tyrants without. They added them to protect us from the tyrants within.

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