Three names: Michael Jackson, Troy Davis and Herman Lindsey.
The first you certainly know, the second, you might. The third, perhaps not ... unless you pay close attention to criminal justice and civil rights issues.
First, Michael Jackson. His memorial service after his untimely death was last week, closely covered, watched by millions. Perhaps the emotional highlight of the service, apart from when Jackson's little daughter spoke, was when the Rev. Al Sharpton declared to Jackson's children that "There was nothing strange about your daddy. It was strange what your daddy had to deal with."
It was clearly a moment of catharsis for the millions who loved Michael Jackson's work and, no doubt, wanted a retort to all the unpleasantness surrounding his death.
The only problem is, of course, that it's not true, at least not entirely true.
Michael was strange. What he had to deal with was also strange. Growing up with a taskmaster of a father — who pushed his kids into this draconian regiment of rehearsal and performance — that was strange. Experiencing overwhelming worldwide celebrity at an age when most kids are just trying to learn to ride a two-wheeler and go to sleep without sucking their thumbs — that was strange.
But what Michael Jackson did after all that was equally strange. Psychologically healthy grown men do not, as a rule, live in a self-created childhood fantasy land, and they do not (and he admitted to this) invite unrelated young boys to cuddle up with them on sleepovers.
On the other hand, there is also this: he was acquitted of any criminal wrongdoing related to this behavior in a court of law by a jury of his peers.
So how then does that justify such critics as Congressman Peter King choosing to publically denounce Jackson as a pedophile and anybody who mourned him as a symptom of a country in decline?
I know that many people wonder why African-Americans seem to have this propensity to rally around their racial kinsmen when one of them is in trouble. Can I just tell you? Congressman King has just reminded us of why.
African-Americans have been lectured throughout their 400-year history in this land why they must have faith in its institutions, even when those institutions were fundamentally and intentionally biased against them. So how then is it proper for a man, who is a member of one of most important institutions of government, to disdain and repudiate the outcome of another institution of government just because he happens not to like it or agree with it?
That brings me to Troy Davis and Herman Lindsey. Troy Davis is a black man in Georgia who has been sentenced to death for the murder of a white police officer back in 1989. There was no physical evidence against Davis and a weapon was never found. Since then seven of the nine non-police witnesses in the case have recanted or contradicted their testimony, and many say they were pressured or coerced by police. His scheduled execution has now been stopped three times; the U.S. Supreme Court has postponed a decision on Davis's latest petition until September. Voices as diverse as Amnesty International and former FBI director William Sessions have called for Davis to get a new trial. And although Davis and his supporters are still waiting, they have not, to this point, lost hope that the system will correct itself.
And the reason Davis' supporters can have hope might be, in part, because of cases like Herman Lindsey's. Earlier this month, the Florida Supreme Court unanimously ordered that Lindsey, also a black man, be set free from death row. The court said there was not enough evidence presented during Lindsey's 2006 trial to convict him of murdering a woman, who was white, at a pawn shop.
Three stories, three very different outcomes, one still pending. So, does the system work or not? Is it fair or not, especially when it comes to race?
It seems to me, as these three cases show, that it does us little good to continue to insist on embracing one truth at the expense of another: one can make profoundly poor decisions and still be innocent of a crime; racism may be over but not yet dead. A system may be fundamentally sound in most respects yet deeply flawed in others.
It strikes me that we should be mature enough to embrace the fact that more than one thing can be true at any one time. Why we seem to have so much trouble with that is beyond me.