Letter from America

Letter from America

Murders most foul

George Floyd’s death came 60 years after To Kill a Mockingbird

Edward Kosner

The cable news has been running for hours each day on our big TV.

It’s hard to look away. America has been in the midst of an unprecedented double crisis – giant protest demonstrations and ugly looting triggered by the police murder of a black man in Minneapolis, overshadowing for a time the trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The anguish and chaos remind many of 1968, when the country was convulsed by resistance to the Vietnam War, the assassinations of the Rev Martin Luther King Jr and Robert Kennedy, the shooting of the racist demagogue George Wallace and the tumultuous Democratic convention in Chicago, where Mayor Richard Daley’s cops ran riot themselves.

History chimes in magical ways. The furore over the killing of George Floyd comes just weeks before the 60th anniversary of the publication, on 11th July 1960, of America’s most celebrated novel about racial injustice.

Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is the story of white lawyer Atticus Finch’s failed effort to save the innocent Tom Robinson, a black father of four, from conviction by a Dixie jury of the rape of a white woman. It has sold more than
40 million copies, has been made into a memorable 1960s movie and a 2018 hit Broadway play, and is required reading for nearly every American high-schooler.

Brock Peters and Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird

Stories like George Floyd’s are painfully familiar to me. My first newspaper job, at age 20, was on the old liberal New York Post. The tabloid was a lonely sentinel in the 1950s, covering lynchings and other racial crimes in the deep South.

The Post had one of the few black reporters on any metropolitan daily – Ted Poston, who regularly risked his life to cover big race stories in Mississippi and Alabama.

The week I joined Newsweek in the early ’60s, the cover story was Dr King’s March on Washington. A few years later, I was part of the team who produced an acclaimed special report outlining a programme for ‘Negro’ advancement in America.

I was walking peacefully with colleagues, all wearing press passes, outside that infamous 1968 convention when a Chicago cop slammed his nightstick onto the skull of the only black reporter among us.

It’s facile to conclude that over the past half-century in the story of race in America only the names and details have changed. Change has been profound, even if it sometimes feels glacial.

Growing up in Manhattan, I had but one African-American classmate (he wound up an important doctor) until high school. On my student paper at the City College of New York, everyone was white. The Post had Poston, and Newsweek had only one black writer or senior editor in my years there.

It was national news in 1966 when Edward Brooke became the first African-American US Senator since Reconstruction, and again a year later when Carl Stokes was elected mayor of Cleveland. In the midst of today’s crisis, some of the most eloquent voices are the mayors of Chicago, Atlanta and Washington, DC – all black women.

In America now, many of the highest-paid athletes and pop and movie stars are African-American, and Oprah Winfrey is one of the richest women of any colour.

Even so, most black citizens – as well as Hispanics and Asian-Americans – live in segregated neighbourhoods, even though housing discrimination has long been outlawed. Much of Harlem, where my college had its concrete campus, has been gentrified by the long economic boom, as have other minority neighbourhoods around the country.

More than anything, the passage of the Voting Rights Act, after the assassination of John F Kennedy, began the great transformation of our politics that in time led to Barack Obama in the White House.

Still, a deeply resistant strain of racism persists in America. It is not new. Acts of police violence against blacks and routine racist incidents on the streets happened all the time in post-war America. Most were witnessed by a handful of people, and only a fraction were reported in the papers. Now they are captured by mobile-phone cameras and police body cams and broadcast to the world on cable news, Facebook, Twitter and the rest.

My colleague Peter Goldman wrote most of Newsweek’s brilliant coverage of the civil-rights movement. ‘We’ve made fitful progress since the marches and riots of the 60s,’ he told me the other day, ‘but the video record of Floyd’s death reminds me that one thing hasn’t changed: the recurring use of deadly police force against unarmed African-American men.’

The protest marches prompted by Floyd’s death have been disfigured to a degree by the arson and looting rampages of hoodlums with their own motives.

But the huge, diverse and sustained demonstrations that have filled our great cities are incontestable proof that racism is being overrun in America – too slowly, but surely. As I finish this piece, activist Rev Al Sharpton has just electrified Floyd’s televised memorial service, crying, ‘Get your knee off our necks!’

That’s why I and so many others can’t look away.

Edward Kosner was the editor of Newsweek, New York magazine, Esquire and the New York Daily News