Should Sleeping Dogs Be Left Lying?

Hook image for blog post "Should Sleeping Dogs be Left Lying?"

By Bart Frost

Friends, crack open a kombucha, drop the needle on your favorite Rage Against the Machine album, and sit back. Episode 2 of White Lies dropped this week and we’ve got something for you...

This week’s episode “The Who and the What” touched mostly on the trials regarding Viola Liuzzo’s and James Reeb’s murderers. We hear some of the eulogy Dr. King gave for James Reeb, LBJ’s famous speech, and we learn about Alabama Attorney General Richmond Flowers fight against segregation and he tried to fight bias in the jury selection process during the trial as he prosecuted Liuzzo’s killers. We also learn the depth and entrenchment of white supremacy in Alabama.

I had never heard what the defense argument in the Reeb trial before this week. I wasn’t surprised by the shenanigans that the court officers and white citizens of Selma engaged in. Through my undergraduate studies, I was exposed to the Scottsboro Boys and their trials as well as numerous other cases with clear misconduct by white lawyers and officials. Prosecutorial, judicial, and defense misconduct still happens way more than it should (which is zero times, by the way). Instead of focusing on perpetuating justice, the judicial system focuses on wins and politics.

Still, I was surprised that an entire town could come to believe the outrageous allegation made by the defense: Reeb wasn't killed by them, he was killed by the same people he marched with in the (non-violent) struggle for Civil Rights. Why would his friends murder Reeb in the ambulance? The defense claim: To create a martyr. Hmm... That sounds so out of left field that I can’t believe anyone would entertain such story for even a minute. But furthermore, how could one continue to believe a story like that 50 years later? After everything that’s happened? Has no one ever heard of Occam’s Razor?

Then I noticed how that incredible claim is related to so many other conspiracy theories. Particularly the claims after every mass shooting that it’s a false flag attack that crisis actors are using to take away 2nd Amendment rights. I’ve always wondered how folks could believe such things - particularly Flat Earthers. (I mean... HUH?!) The common wisdom breaks it down into three things:the desire for understanding and certainty, desire for control and security, and the desire to maintain a positive self-image.

Let's look at this a bit closer: The desire for control. This is one of the reasons why white supremacy is so entrenched in American society. All of the white violence during the Civil Rights Movement and by the alt-right is part of a desire to maintain control and with control comes certainty. This is also where Pilcher, the white men’s defense attorney, and Saul Tepper’s propaganda strikes first. Controlling the narrative, controlling the argument, allows folks to define the conversation. We see this across the internet subcultures where racism and fascism have risen their heads.

The desire to maintain a positive self-image. That’s why the prosecutor McLeod made the ill-willed attempt that he did, because he didn’t want the community being lambasted by the media. It’s why one of the only living jurors didn’t want to be interviewed. “It’s all gone. It’d be better if it’s forgot about,” he said. It’s why the other juror, Billy Boozer, believes Reeb didn’t die because of the beating he received but in the ambulance at the hands of his friends. If we don’t talk about what happened or if we tell a different story, then we don’t have to hold ourselves accountable.

Americans struggle with accountability. How do we hold artists responsible for their actions while enjoying their art? This is a question that gets asked every time a celebrity harms another person. Our politicians avoid accountability and we, as citizens (in general), refuse to hold them accountable. I wonder if any of the white men involved have ever reckoned with the pain and harm they caused. I have my doubts.

Friends, I leave you with a few questions:

What lies have you been asked to swallow or help maintain?

What lies about your community, state, and nation are you willing to believe because the truth is too painful?

What are the stories that your community tells itself in order to remain “good”?

More Learning:

Check out Rev. Joanna Fontaine Crawford’s series “My Love Song to Unitarian Universalism...and Unitarian Universalists”

People’s history of the US, Howard Zinn

LIes My Teacher Told Me: