Support Your Local Sheriff: It is easy to imagine a host of witnesses lining up to perjure themselves in the name of White Supremacy. Why, then, is it so hard to imagine a host of “independent” witnesses hurrying forward to defend the honour of their macho code by denying that anything untoward happened to Scarlette at that infamous Matamata spa?
PAUL REED’S ICONIC PHOTOGRAPH, often subtitled “Support Your Local Sheriff”, appeared in Life magazine in 1967. Lawrence A. Rainey, oozing the in-your-face belligerence of a crooked southern sheriff, was on trial for violating the civil rights of Michael Schwerner, James Chaney and Andrew Goodman, three young civil rights workers murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in Philadelphia, Mississippi, in June 1964.
Rainey’s easy confidence was not misplaced. In Mississippi, in the early 1960s, the chances of an all-white jury convicting a white law enforcement officer for the murder of an African American were practically nil. Men like Rainey were elected by their white neighbours (the sort of men captured grinning at the camera in Life’s famous photograph) and adhered to exactly the same viciously racist beliefs.
Since the 1880s, virtually the entire law enforcement and judicial infrastructure of the South had been dedicated to the preservation and enforcement of white privilege. If the Klan was there to terrorise and murder southern blacks, the role of sheriffs and judges was to make sure that the persons responsible were never brought to justice.
In this endeavour law enforcement and the judiciary could rely upon the willing co-operation of white juries. In the rare event that a district attorney brought a white person to trial, jury members could be relied upon to ignore the prosecution’s evidence. By contrast, the testimony of defence witnesses – no matter how outlandish – was taken as gospel. For an accused Klansman, acquittal was practically certain.
That the Jim Crow South of the 1950s and 60s was a hotbed of white racism and violence is hardly news. In 2016 we have no difficulty whatsoever in understanding how the racist communities of the southern states banded together to protect their racial privileges. We certainly know better than to believe them capable of delivering justice to their black neighbours.
Why then are we surprised and offended when the NZ Rugby Union produces a report which utterly fails to deliver even the most rudimentary justice to the young woman whose experiences called it forth? If we can understand how the deeply racist culture of the American South consistently failed to deliver justice to its black victims; why couldn’t we anticipate how the viciously misogynistic attitudes pervading New Zealand’s Rugby culture would similarly fail to deliver justice to Scarlette?
It is easy to imagine a host of witnesses lining up to perjure themselves in the name of White Supremacy. Why, then, is it so hard to imagine a host of “independent” witnesses hurrying forward to defend the honour of their macho code by denying that anything untoward happened to Scarlette at that Matamata spa?
It’s a pity there was no Life photographer present when these good ole boys were giving their “evidence” to the Rugby Union’s lawyer. What are the odds that their faces all wore expressions very similar to Sheriff Rainey’s?
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Saturday, 10 September 2016.