What’s Past is Present: How an 1820 Law Still Haunts Us

Source: Prince, A Digest of the Laws of the State of Georgia, page 348. URL: https://archive.org/details/digestoflawsofst1822stat/page/348

When you Google “black men killed by police officers,” dozens of news sites with articles about individual murders, trends in racially motivated murders, or the statistics concerning murder rate of black men by police officers.

The headlines ask you to be more specific; would you like to know about the murder of three black boys in Alabama? How about the number of police encounters that end in violence?

How about the odds of the victims being shot in the back, or while running away? Would you like to define your range by the age of the victims? Or the frequency of indictment of the officers?

What the news headlines don’t show is the historical precedence of these murders.

From the mutilation and murder of Emmett Till to the renewal of the KKK at Stone Mountain to the countless unnamed, racial violence has marred the face of American history since the institution of slavery, and the face of Georgia specifically for almost as long. The digest of the laws of Georgia in 1820 explicitly set aside several exemptions in the case of the murder of a slave.

Just the fact that these exemptions exist should come as no surprise and yet seeing them set in the canon of laws of my state reverberates with a new cacophony in the light of police brutality, the murders of black men at the hands of white police officers, and mass incarceration. This law is not just a window into slaveholding life; it also seems to prophesy the racial tension in America today.

According to CNN, between 2005 and 2017, only 35% of officers involved in the shooting of a black man were convicted. A 2017 study by the American Journal of Public Health concluded that black men are three times as likely to die from police use of force.

These statistics have their roots in this document and neither the Civil War, nor Reconstruction could completely destroy them.

So what will it take? How many more black men and women have to die in police custody or at the hands of white people emboldened by our president before we tell a 19th-century law to stay in the past where it belongs?

I’m very obviously not the first one to talk about this and I won’t be the last. I have nothing profound to add to this conversation other than to point our attention to the larger historical context: how the 1968 Summer Olympics paved the way for Colin Kaepernick, how the Little Rock Nine and the Black Lives Matter protests have revealed the stark reality of racism in America, decades apart. And to ask whether we can change what our legacy will be, whether it’s too late, whether we can turn this car around.

But truly everything that can possibly be said has been said by other people, people who are smarter and more powerful than I am, and without a doubt, better and more coherent things will be said by other, smarter, more coherent people than me.

And while they do that, keep in mind that we are not living in some wild anomaly in American history. We are part of a chain reaching back for hundreds of years, irreversible and irreparable, ugly and embarrassing, violent and terrible and traumatic.

The time has long since come for us to decide whether we will do our best to break that chain––or to erect monuments to it.

Works Cited

Howard, Jacqueline. “ Black men nearly 3 times as likely to die from police use of force, study says.” CNN, December 20, 2016, https://www.cnn.com/2016/12/20/health/black-men-killed-by-police/index.html.

Park, Madison. “Police shootings: Trials, convictions are rare for officers.” CNN, October 3, 2018, https://www.cnn.com/2017/05/18/us/police-involved-shooting-cases/index.html.

Prince, Oliver H. A Digest of the Laws of the State of Georgia. Milledgeville, Grantland & Orme, 1822.

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