It was Christmas Day 1987. A black man from Louisiana who had never been in trouble with the law — Loyal Garner Jr. — was pulled over for a traffic infraction. Garner, a devoted husband and father to six children, was taken to the county jail in Hemphill, Texas. Three lawmen beat Garner so severely he died 72 hours later.
I was a young woman, profoundly impacted by Garner’s story and how Morris Dees and his Southern Poverty Law Center colleagues filed a suit on behalf of the grieving family, desperate for equal justice. I have never forgotten my own parents’ struggles in East Texas and two law officers arresting us on a lazy Sunday afternoon when a bogus traffic stop went horribly wrong. We were taken to jail.
Throughout my career — as a broadcast journalist and author — I have nurtured a simple thesis: Justice can open the door to healing. But as I continue on my American journey, how many more examples must be endured?
It was Nov. 7, 2013. A young black man was on his way to work when his truck broke down just outside Hemphill, Texas. Not long after, 28-year-old Alfred Wright called his family for help. His wife, Lauren, who is white, wasn’t worried after learning that her husband’s parents agreed to drive over and get him. Wright was nowhere to be found.
After four days of searching, Sabine County authorities called off the investigation and gave up looking for Wright. Three weeks later, a determined family of volunteers found his body. Wright’s cause of death was ruled accidental and his name saturated in suspicion of drug use.
The family paid for a second autopsy that concluded a high possibility that Wright’s death was a homicide. And now the Justice Department has taken over the investigation to unearth possibly absent facts on how a man who stood accused of abusing drugs could slit his own throat or slice off an ear.
As soon as word spread about the death of Alfred Wright, my phone began ringing because of where Wright is from, not just what may or may not have happened to him. You see, Wright is from Jasper, Texas.
As author of Hate Crime: The Story of a Dragging in Jasper, Texas, I am being bombarded with one question on this sad tragedy. Is this another hate crime? My answer is intentionally delayed while mental files produce faces of men like Loyal Garner, minding his own business, murdered.
No matter what history or geography has taught us, I will not rush to judgment just because the town of Jasper has been mentioned in this still developing national headline. As I once cautioned during the dragging trials, law-abiding citizens from all over must stop relying so heavily on stereotypes and do what we can to abolish injustice everywhere. I have friends in law enforcement — of good, strong character — who would never turn a blind eye or enforce a special brand of justice because a victim happens to be a person of color or from a different socioeconomic background.
Whenever it happens and the evidence is irrefutably clear, black and white must denounce racism, misconduct or abuse of power. Authorities who defile their trust must be removed and suffer the consequences.
Americans of all races must stand together and demand equal justice for every case without assigning indifference because a victim does not live in the same ZIP code.
Loyal Garner, James Byrd, Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Alfred Wright. Countless men, their destinations and locations of demise, are engraved in our hearts for the legacy, history and hope they produce.
I know a little something of wanting justice, wanting to see right be done.