by Errington C. Thompson, MD –
James Reeb, the Central Park 5, and Our Amoral Southern Border Strategy.
Reverend James Reeb
I was listening to the NPR’s podcast, “White Lies.” The program promises to tackle many subjects, but their inaugural topic was the death of Reverend James Reeb in 1965. Okay, I have to admit that until the podcast I had no idea who James Reeb was.
In Selma, Alabama, immediately after Bloody Sunday, in which peaceful civil rights marchers were attacked by police with Billy clubs, police on horseback, and police dogs as they crossed the Edmond Pettus Bridge, Martin Luther King asked for people of God to come to Selma and help with the struggle. James Reeb was a Unitarian-Universalist minister and a member of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, who lived in Boston with his wife and four young children. Having heard Dr. King’s cry for help, he told his wife that he had to go to Selma.
Reeb left his wife the following day flew to Selma just days after King’s call. After eating dinner with two other U-U ministers—including the late Asheville resident Dr. Clark Olsen—they were assaulted by four men as they walked back to their hotel. Reeb was hit in the head with a club or a stick. Although he retained consciousness, he complained of a terrible headache. His colleagues took him to a local clinic, where he was diagnosed with a severe head injury. (Though a white man himself, as a supporter of black civil rights, he could not be taken to either of the two white hospitals in town.)
From the clinic, he was transported to Birmingham, which had the closest neurosurgeon—though the ambulance broke down en route, and they were delayed at least an hour waiting for a replacement. Two days later he died in that Birmingham hospital. Months later, three men—Elmer Cook, William Stanley Hoggle and Namon O’Neill Hoggle—were tried for the murder of James Reeb—and acquitted. To this day, no one has been brought to justice.
The relentless reporters of the “White Lies” podcast returned to Selma. They interviewed people, though it had been more than 50 years since the attack. Both are white men from Alabama, yet they had doors slammed in their faces. They called people on the phone who were friendly one minute and hung up on them the next.
Yet, they figured out what happened to James Reeb. They found an eyewitness to the crime who confirmed what everyone in Selma knew: Elmer Cook, William Hoggle, Namon Hoggle, and William Portwood were guilty of murder. Everyone knew who killed James Reeb, but no one would talk to the FBI.
This was a conspiracy which involved just about everyone in Selma. It involved the police and the police chief. It involved the prosecutor. It involved the jury. Nobody wanted to tell the truth. No one wanted to stand up for Reverend Reeb or for justice. Now, in 2019, all of the perpetrators of the murder have died. This is a dark, ugly side of America.
Central Park 5
On the night of April 19, 1989, 28-year-old New York investment banker Tricia Meili went jogging. She was a runner. She took her usual route, which took her through Central Park. While jogging, she was brutally assaulted and raped and left for dead. The assault probably took place somewhere around 9:30 to 9:40 p.m. She was found at 1:30 a.m., barely alive. Her clothes were soaked with her blood. She was in a coma for twelve days.
At around 9 o’clock on the 19th, a group of thirty or more teenagers gathered in East Harlem and went to Central Park. Among them were Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Kevin Richardson, all fourteen or fifteen years old.
As the teenagers were moving through the park, they were roughhousing with each other. Then, they began to attack joggers, bicyclists, and even a homeless man. The police came and rounded up as many of them as they could find, including Antron, Raymond, and Kevin. The following morning the police rounded up Yusef Salaam—and his friend Korey Wise, 16, came with him to the police station.
Sometime in the early morning hours—and for unknown reasons—the police began to think that this group, who had assaulted several New Yorkers, also committed the brutal rape of Tricia Meili. They began to question these young boys as if they were adults. The police questioned them for hours. They began to feed them stories.
These boys had no counsel. They had no food. They had no water. The police kept hammering them. They were in their faces. They were slapping them. Their parents were not allowed in the room. The police promised them that they could go home if they just told the truth.
Soon, the police had four confessions. The stories were piecemeal but each had implicated the other in the brutal rape and assault of Tricia Meili. The stories by themselves made no sense. Yusef Salaam’s mother interrupted his interview and demanded that the questioning stop. He was the only one who did not confess.
Many people would look at the story of the Central Park 5 and point out that the police did not follow due process and therefore, in America, these five young men could never get convicted. There were many pieces of evidence that clearly showed that these five young men did not commit this terrible crime. Robert Garner was attacked around 9:30 in a different part of the Park by the mob of teenagers that night. How was this group of 30 kids in two places at once?
Tricia Meili was a bloody mess. How did these five inner-city youths commit this brutal assault and rape and not get a single drop of blood on them?
Semen was collected at the scene and from the victim. None of the DNA matched any of the Central Park 5.
Finally, at the scene of the rape, you could see the drag prints in the mud. One could clearly see the footprints of a single individual and where this person dragged the victim into the woods. There is no way that a group of five guys could make those prints.
Yet these five boys were convicted. The judge allowed their coerced confessions in as evidence. Their convictions were “confirmed” by the Appeals Court.
This did not occur in Alabama or Mississippi, where we expect this type of miscarriage of justice. This was in New York, the home of progressivism and liberalism.
Korey Wise did not go to the park that night. He went to the police station with this friend Yusef. That’s it. He went to be with his friend. With no physical evidence linking him to the Park, he was convicted also. Because Korey was 16, he was placed in an adult prison, Rikers Island, and served 13 years.
Then, fortunately for Korey and for justice, he was transferred from Rikers Island to Auburn Correctional Facility in upstate New York. In 2001, 11 years after the crime, while in Auburn, he met a man named Matias Reyes.
Reyes was doing time for rape and murder. He was a serial rapist. Reyes told Korey that he raped Tricia Meili. Reyes reached out to authorities and told them that he was one that raped and almost killed Tricia Meili. His DNA matched the DNA that was found at the scene. He knew details about the rape and the jogger that were not released to the public. It even turns out that Reyes had raped another woman in the same part of Central Park on April 17th, two days before Ms. Meili was raped. Why the police didn’t put this together is troubling.
Now the Central Park 5 want to be known as the Exonerated 5. They’ve all been released from jail. Their records have been wiped clean. They have received settlements from the city ($40 million+) and the state ($3.9 million) for malicious prosecution, racial discrimination, and emotional distress—a payment of more than $1 million to each man for each year he served. But even after full exoneration, they didn’t receive the settlement for years: it was held up by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who refused to release the money. After his election, Mayor Bill de Blasio released the money that allowed this great travesty of justice to be partially repaid.
Several years ago, Ken Burns, who is famous for his documentaries on jazz and baseball and the Civil War, did a documentary on the Central Park 5. Netflix has just come out with a dramatization of the lives of these five men. It is a powerful, emotional movie. It is hard to watch.
When we, as Americans, think of injustice, specifically, racial injustice, we think of things that happened a long time ago. We think of the Trail of Tears, where tens of thousands of American Indians were forced to relocate and thousands died along the way. We think of the Tuskegee medical experiments (1932–1972) in which black Americans were used as guinea pigs to study the natural history of syphilis. We can also conjure up the atrocity of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in which four little black girls were killed.
But as late as 2014—eleven years after Reyes’ confession and the men’s exoneration—Donald Trump wrote in a NY Daily News op ed that the settlement was “a disgrace,” and that the men were likely guilty. “Settling doesn’t mean innocence,” he wrote.
We would like to think of ourselves as better people, better Americans. We are better than they were back in the ’40s and ’50s. We live in a more open society. We accept diversity. Yet, I would ask you to stop patting yourself on the back for a second.
Our Amoral Southern Border
Just last week, a detention facility in Clint, Texas, was closed. The conditions were reported to be horrendous. Not enough food. Not enough toothbrushes. Overcrowded. The children in this detention facility were moved to another facility which was reportedly better.
These children have been forcibly taken from their parents. Their parents tried to emigrate to the United States from the dangerous, horrifying conditions in their home countries. In doing so, they have supposedly broken the law, and it appears that the penalty for breaking the law is losing your children. (Both international law and U.S. law state that it is NOT breaking the law to come here and claim asylum; in fact those laws require that we house asylum-seekers, identify them, and release them to await their hearings.)
This is amoral. This goes against our Judeo-Christian heritage. Because these people are not Americans or because of their brown skin, many Americans believe it’s okay to treat them like animals.
So Congress rushed and put together some half-measure that was supposed to fix this problem. Republicans in the Senate and the Democrats in the House agreed—sort of—on this half-measure. Will it fix the problem? Who knows?
The problem isn’t our laws. The problem isn’t that we don’t have the money to fix the problem. The problem is we have a leader who thinks that this is okay. Donald Trump becomes outraged when one of his minions coughs during his television interview. He is not outraged because children are separated from their parents at the border: he is outraged that these people of color are coming here in the first place. As long as we have an amoral leader, atrocities will continue to be committed in our name.
Oh, in case you didn’t know, two days later, those children were taken back to the same facility in Clint, Texas.
Are we really better than our parents or grandparents?