Sunday, February 19, 2017


Bookmarking: The Raleigh N&O has an investigative piece today by Joseph Neff, about a 28-year-old death investigation.  Civil rights lawyer Julian Pierce was murdered in 1988, in the midst of an election campaign for a judgeship.  The chief suspect in his shooting conveniently turned up dead himself, in what was ruled, incredibly, a suicide.  Pierce, a Lumbee Indian, was promising to push for school desegregation and other legal reforms in the corruption-filled swamps of Robeson County, NC.  Pierce's opponent in the judicial race was Joe Freeman Britt, notorious as the World's Deadliest Prosecutor, seemingly able to get a capital conviction against a ham sandwich.  There are whispers of law enforcement and drug dealers being involved in Pierce's murder.  His daughter is pressing to get the case reopened, and is meeting a lot of resistance.

I've long been fascinated by Robeson County, a lawless place, racially divided almost into thirds among white, black, and Lumbee residents.  (It is the center of gravity for the Lumbee band, a caste of gypsies among gypsies, which has strived futilely for decades to get federal tribal recognition.) But more than that, my historical consciousness has been heightened by the dizzying reality of the Trump presidency.  It feels like the most awful political twist ever.  Of course, Americans of color will quickly set me straight about that.   In the South especially, it was hair-raising, the racist violence that small-town sheriffs and prosecutors could get away with.

So I'm fixing on these facts of our civic life, that seem horrific by my lights today, but were accepted as thoroughly "normalized" not so long ago.  A candidate for judge was shot dead!  In 1988, when I was of voting age and registered here!  I don't remember being aware of the case at the time.

Another example: A Facebook friend in Raleigh got his hands on a sales flyer for his neighborhood, which was developed in the 1950s.  A nice leafy neighborhood now, in a voting precinct that probably went for Hillary last fall.  The brochure has a bullet point reading, "RESTRICTED FOR YOUR PROTECTION."  It clearly refers to a No Blacks covenant in the real estate sales contracts.  There are lots of people still around for whom that is a living memory.  The realtor is still in business.

Today, for a political campaign in a rural corner of the state to end in an assassination -- that would beggar belief.  In 1988, however, it was plausible.  And what remains today is an unwillingness to confront the wrongdoing and its implications.  We blanch at actual violence or brute statutory discrimination such as our parents or grandparents engaged in.  But we generally refuse to confront the consequences of our recent history responsibly.  It's very uncomfortable for officials to publish the truth and administer justice, be it financial reparations to victims or criminal convictions against the culpable people who are now honored dead or respected elders, therefore "harmless".

Here's a great dramatic detail.  Julia Pierce, struggling to get her late father's case reopened, finally got a meeting last year with the State Bureau of Investigation.  Without warning her, they invited the retired SBI agent who'd originally handled the case to the meeting, and let him do most of the talking.  He came off as a tad defensive: 

“If your theory is true, I’m either incompetent or dishonest,” Bowman said on an audio recording of the meeting. “So which is it?”

Well, sir, you don't appear to be incompetent.