12/12/2014 10:29 am ET Updated Feb 11, 2015

When Hope's Hands Were Up


Tomorrow's march on Washington led by the Reverend Al Sharpton is billed as a rally against police violence. The tragic deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York, and Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio, have released a tidal wave of nationwide protests and social commentary. Demonstrators see the overuse of police force as cruel and the freedom of un-indicted officers as criminal. They see it as their right and duty to insist that such incidents benefit from public scrutiny and reasoned debate. That insistence is as it should be in our democracy.

No matter what lens one uses, it is impossible to deny the racial and class implications of all three incidents. It is also impossible to ignore the significant disadvantage and presumed villainy of the African American male in these and countless other cases.

It all eerily echoes a poignant moment in history when the city of Atlanta, Georgia was exploded by a bloody, three-day race riot in 1906. More than 100 African Americans were killed, wounded or disfigured by mob violence. When many Atlanta police officers failed to protect African Americans, a state militia was summoned to stem the violence.

On the second day of the conflict, John Hope, who had just begun serving as the first African American president of the institution that would soon be called Morehouse College, walked across the campus. As one professor recalled, Hope was approached by a white officer who pointed his gun at him and "cried out, 'put your hands up!'" Hope put his hands up and kept walking toward the officer. And then, with a disarming smile, Hope invited him into his home for a cup of tea. The officer lowered his gun and accepted Hope's invitation.

Had the officer shot him instead, he would have unwittingly altered the trajectory of a college that would eventually use its character-driven education to produce for the world a dreamer named Martin Luther King, Jr., a filmmaker named Spike Lee, a technologist named Paul Judge, and a Homeland Security Secretary named Jeh Johnson.

In essence, a poised Hope benefited from three things that Brown, Garner, Rice and many other African American males never experienced. First, Hope received equal protection under the law. The officer was guarding the campus in place of the negligent local police. This is a fundamental entitlement, embedded and safeguarded in our Constitution and in our civil and criminal codes. Equal protection and a presumption of innocence are owed to all citizens regardless of their race, creed or station in life. They are owed to all citizens, whether they are college dropouts or college presidents, or whether they are petty thieves threatening the safety of a convenience store, or derivatives traders threatening the stability of the entire economy.

Second, Hope received the benefit of the doubt. The officer did his job by observing the scene, reading Hope's movements, and noticing that he was unarmed. The officer assessed the situation well enough to know it was safe to lower his weapon and have tea, rather than fire his weapon and wreak havoc.

In my judgment, the vast majority of police officers today are good people who do their jobs well. I would guess that many of them are outraged by the conduct of their fellow officers. Likewise, the vast majority of African American boys and men are good, law-abiding citizens. And they, too, are outraged by the presumption of guilt that has recently driven so many deadly encounters with white police officers. And, based on history, citizens and officers alike might ask how is it that at the height of one of the South's greatest racial conflicts, Hope received the benefit of the doubt that seems so rarely available to African American males today?

But the third and final lesson from Hope's 1906 encounter with a police officer was that he benefited from empathy. Even while on duty, the officer's humanity led to a constructive rather than a destructive outcome. President Barack Obama showed the same kind of empathic impulse when, on the heels of Trayvon Martin's death, he said, "You know, if I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon." How many of today's police officers have enough empathy to know when it is safe to simply view the African American man before them as a law-abiding fellow American...or as their own son?

Here's hoping that tomorrow's march can help to effect a firm, nationwide rebuke of the demonization of African American men, and foster a deeper understanding of our common humanity.