We Americans are justly proud of the rights we are guaranteed under our Constitution. And, there can be no right more precious than that of due process — the fifth and 14th amendments to the Constitution proclaim this right to be the inalienable right of all Americans.
Yet an honest survey of the history of America reveals that all-too-often we have denied our fellow citizens this right and practiced some variant of “lynch law.”
One of the most terrible lynchings in U.S. history took place here in Leavenworth on Jan. 15, 1901. In late 1900, stories began to circulate in Leavenworth that there was a black serial rapist victimizing white women in the city. Then, in early November 1900, a young white woman was found raped and murdered — her body had been dumped in a creek bed.
Suspicion soon fell on a local black man, Fred Alexander.
Despite a lack of any compelling evidence of his guilt, he was arrested in early January 1901. When word spread in town that a suspect was in custody, a mob numbering several thousands stormed the city jail and seized Alexander — he was taken to the spot where the young woman’s body had been found, chained to some railroad ties and then burned alive.
As I said, there was no compelling evidence of Alexander’s guilt — perhaps the best proof of his innocence is that he repeatedly refused the demands of the mob to confess; had he done so there was an outside chance that the mob would have relented and “saved him for the hangman.”
Instead, his brave defense of his innocence only served to goad the mob on.
This terrible incident in the history of Leavenworth is worth recalling in light of the tragic events now unfolding in the town of Ferguson, Mo. On Aug. 9, a young black man, Michael Brown, was shot and killed by a white police officer, Darren Wilson.
While there is no doubt officer Wilson is the one responsible for Brown’s death, much of the rest of the case is in dispute. Was Brown surrendering with his hands held up, as one of the witnesses says, or was he charging the officer, as the officer claims?
Had Brown just assaulted the officer and tried to get his gun, as the officer says, or was the officer the one who assaulted Brown, as a witness says? Despite the air of certainty with which all-too-many of those commenting on this case have assumed, the only way to resolve these conflicting accounts is through a thorough investigation and then by a trial in a court of law before a judge and a jury.
Trials before a judge and jury is what due process is all about — here in America we are not supposed to try people in the media. Sorry, Nancy Grace.
And, we are not supposed to let mobs influence whether someone is found guilty or innocent. When I heard crowds chanting, “No Justice, No Peace,” I am reminded of another terrible case of lynch law in America — the 1915 murder of Leo Frank.
Frank was a Jewish businessman in Atlanta, Ga., who was falsely accused of raping and murdering a young female employee, Mary Phagan. He was convicted by a judge and jury terrified of anti-semitic mobs outside the courthouse chanting the 1915 version of “No Justice, No Peace.”
In a scathing critique of the trial, the great Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “Due process does not become due process by securing the assent of a terrified jury.” When the governor of Georgia bravely defied the mobs and commuted Frank’s death sentence, a mob stormed the jail where he was held and lynched him.
Many years later, an old man on his deathbed confessed that he had seen Mary Phagan being murdered, and that Frank was not her killer.
If we Americans are to be true to our Constitutional ideals, we must accept a most politically incorrect idea: It is just as wrong to deny due process to a white policeman in 2014 as it was to deny due process to a black man in 1901.
Dr. Ernest Evans is a political science professor at Kansas City Kansas Community College-Leavenworth Center and a regular guest lecturer at the Command and General Staff College at Fort Leavenworth. He is a Leavenworth resident.