No one will ever forget where they were 20 years ago on the afternoon of October 3, 1995. An estimated 100 million people worldwide stopped what they were doing to in anticipation of the verdict in the O.J. Simpson murder case. Trading volume on the New York Stock Exchange stopped at 41%, and even government officials postponed meetings to hear the verdict in what has since become the most famous murder trial in history.
As the world was glued to their television sets or were listening to their radios (social media was in its developmental stages then, so there was no Facebook or Twitter or even many websites yet), people waited with bated breath to hear the court clerk state, “We the jury find Orenthal James Simpson not guilty.” Those last two words sent shock waves throughout the entire world as a tense O.J. Simpson smiled with relief while his lead attorney, Johnnie Cochran, pressed his hand firmly on Simpson’s shoulder.
Reactions to the verdict varied but for the most part, millions of black people cheered the verdict while millions of white people were angered by the verdict. The fact that a black man was cleared of murdering not one but two white people caused celebration among the black community simply because many years ago, a black man had no chance of being acquitted of such a heinous crime against a white person. In fact, a black man would have been lynched and murdered before a trial ever took place. Therefore, O.J.’s acquittal for many was a symbol of a black person’s liberation over an often racist justice system.
White people, on the other hand, didn’t share in this sentiment. From the time O.J. Simpson was arrested for the murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman, the majority of white people thought O.J. was guilty. Years before the murders, O.J. was one of the most beloved black men in pop culture. With a stellar NFL career, his star turn in several popular films, and endorsements for companies such as Hertz, Simpson was a revered icon. Even a new 1980 Flintstones cartoon modeled a recurring character after him, named “O.J. Simpstone.” Following the murders, for the majority of white people it seemed O.J. Simpson went from being one of America’s most loved people to one of America’s most hated people.
One news broadcast after another and several talk shows devoted either full episodes or segments on the O.J. verdict. News reporters across the country took to the streets to get peoples’ reactions to the verdict. Many people, particularly white people, thought the jury made the wrong decision in acquitting who they believed was a murderer. On the other hand, many black people were cheering the verdict. Indeed, what has been dubbed as the “trial of the century” drew color lines across the country.
Heated confrontations and exchanges erupted between blacks and whites after the verdict came down. In fact, policemen were dispatched throughout Los Angeles and other major cities in the event of a race riot. Fortunately, with the exception of some arguments and shouting matches over the verdict, no riots occurred.
From the time the trial began on January 24, 1995, it played out like a soap opera over the next eight months. Cable station Court TV, which carried coverage of the trial, experienced its highest ratings ever. We were introduced to prosecutors Marcia Clark and Christopher Darden, and defense attorneys Johnnie Cochran (who a year earlier had helped Michael Jackson reach an out-of-court settlement on child molestation charges leveled against him), Robert Shapiro, and Robert Kardashian. We were also introduced to O.J.’s guest house visitor Kato Kaelin, police detective Mark Fuhrman—who was accused of planting bloody socks and gloves at the crime scene, and Judge Lance Ito. The trial was such a media circus that tabloid talk shows had daily commentary on Marcia Clark’s different hairstyles, while former Tonight Show host Jay Leno had a group of Asian men perform the can-can on his show as “the dancing Judge Itos.”
One school of thought during the trial was that O.J. may have committed the murders, but the prosecution did not do a good job of proving it. However, many felt lead defense attorney Johnnie Cochran did an excellent job of proving Simpson’s innocence, especially after he put the tight knit cap Simpson allegedly wore the night of the murders on Simpson’s head, and when he had Simpson try on the tight-fitting bloody gloves and issued this now-famous line to the jury: ”If it don’t fit, you must acquit.”
Many who believed in Simpson’s innocence wondered if he didn’t murder his ex-wife and Ron Goldman, who did? A tabloid newspaper had alleged that Brown’s murder was the result of drug dealers who accosted her over a drug deal gone bad (Simpson had written in a book while in prison that Brown’s murder was due to her being caught up in the world of Faye Resnick), and that Goldman was killed as an innocent bystander trying to defend her. Although this theory had never been proven, it made many curious.
But despite all of the theories, the verdict illustrated that when it came down to a black man accused of a crime, particularly a high profile crime such as this, the majority of black people believed in his innocence while the majority of white people believed in his guilt. For decades, if a black man was accused of a crime, he was automatically guilty in the eyes of white America before any evidence had been presented. Despite some slight progress in racial harmony, many whites still view black men as threatening, suspicious and confrontational, whether they are thugs on a street corner or executives at a Fortune 500 company.
Twenty years after that infamous verdict was read, many people still ask the question, “Did O.J. do it?,” while many others emphatically state, “O.J. did it.” Regardless, O.J. Simpson walked out of that courtroom a free man and, although he is in jail now for another unrelated matter (he tried to forcefully regain some of his stolen memorabilia, which many thought was foolish to attempt), the O.J. acquittal will forever go down in history as the day a black man triumphed over an at-times crooked and racist justice system. Despite some progress with race relations, there are times when certain situations are viewed in only two colors: black and white.
Journalist, actor, filmmaker, dancer, performer, writer, poet, historian and choreographer. That’s Stephen McMillian.