In 1950s Alabama, it almost went without saying that little value was placed on a black man's life in general. In the northeast corner of Alabama, that ideal was quietly defied in court, behind the closed doors of a jury room, and the story not told until decades later.
A white man, who was a notorious bully and particularly enjoyed targeting the local black population, was found dead, and a young black man was accused and arrested for his murder. That young man happened to have worked for my great-grandfather and great-uncle during planting and harvesting seasons. My great-uncle was chosen to serve on the jury for the man's trial.
There was no evidence that this man was the one who killed the bully, but given that he was black, evidence really wasn't necessary. He was black, there was a dead white man, and that was good enough for many people. The jury was ready to release a guilty verdict and recommend the death sentence rather quickly.
My uncle, though, refused to go along with the other eleven jurors. One of the jurors said to him, "Why's it even matter to you? It's just a n*gger."
My uncle's reply was, "In the first place, if he did kill him, it was in self defense." He knew as well as others that the man on trial was a favorite target for the dead bully. "In the second place, there is no evidence he did it. And I don't give two hoots in hell what color he is, if there's a doubt he didn't do it, then I can't say he's guilty with a clear conscience."
He refused to go along with declaring the young man guilty of the bully's murder -- and he hung the jury. The young black man walked free and left the area soon afterwards. No one really knows the details of what happened to him after the trial.
Decades later, my uncle was in the hospital dying, and the entire family was there. A large black man walked into the room, and no one had a clue who he was. The first words he said to my family were, "This man saved my life. And I'm here to thank him for it before he goes."
No one knew what he was talking about. He then recounted this story as it had been told to him by someone who had also served on the jury with my uncle. My family had had no idea what had transpired (other than that he had served on jury duty) all those years ago. My uncle had never spoken a word about it, and had that man not showed up to thank him on his deathbed, we would have never known.
My point in telling this: there are great acts of courage being performed by ordinary people every single day. We don't necessarily hear about them; these people generally don't see what they did as being amazing or beautiful. For them, it's just 'the right thing.'
My great-uncle's story is a story of the power of one individual who wasn't considered very significant. He was a simple farmer who just happened to be picked for jury duty -- but he wielded enormous power because he refused to do what he knew to be wrong. He refused to go along with injustice, he bucked the justice system and the social conventions of the time, and he saved a man's life.
Considering the story as an adult, I'd like to think that my great-uncle's decision affected the conscience of others on the jury, too. One of the other jurymen was moved enough to tell the young black man what had happened behind closed doors, though who exactly was never disclosed.
Black History Month is an awesome time to listen to people's stories of justice and injustice. Remembering that there are good people in this world will shore up your faith in ordinary individuals. It only took one man to stop the injustice that 11 others were willing to cause -- just one man.
You may, in fact, for someone else, be that one person who provides the tipping point in that other life. And that is a beautiful opportunity. Trusting a collective like those jurors in 1950s Alabama is not enough for justice. Justice comes from the single hand that reaches out to grasp another.
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