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American media love and revere two kinds of outspoken black men: 1) dead ones; and 2) ones ravaged by Parkinson's disease.
So this week, Johnnie Cochran joined Martin Luther King Jr., Malcom X and Muhammad Ali as American heroes, men whose controversial lives can now be celebrated and talked about positively.
Maybe now, more than a decade after The Verdict, America will recognize the O.J. Simpson case for what it was for Johnnie Cochran and millions of black folks: a vehicle to expose an even bigger crime than the deaths of Nicole Brown and Ron Goldman.
Now that he's dead, Johnnie Cochran can be talked about in the same breath as Thurgood Marshall, the famous civil-rights-attorney-turned-Supreme Court justice. Now that he's dead, perhaps America will quit reducing Johnnie to the comic, buffoonish figure of Jackie Chiles, the infamous "Seinfeld" character.
Johnnie deserves that. He was always so much more than a spotlight-stealing, rapping-and-rhyming defender of a double-murder suspect. Johnnie was a spotlight-stealing, rapping-and-rhyming freedom fighter who used The Trial of the Century to expose a century's worth of racist corruption within our criminal courts system.
It's unfortunate that circumstances made O.J. Simpson the benefactor of Johnnie's passion and brilliance. For reasons beyond his (possible) guilt, O.J. didn't deserve it. O.J. divorced himself from the black community shortly after he won the Heisman Trophy in 1968, the same year Los Angeles police and the FBI began framing Black Panther leader Geronimo Pratt for the murder of Caroline Olsen.
At the same time the media was focusing on Cochran's defense of Simpson, Cochran was in the process of freeing Pratt from 27 years of incarceration for a crime he did not commit. Cochran repeatedly told the Simpson media that they were missing the real Trial of the Century. No one cared.
Pratt didn't sell newspapers. Pratt didn't drive TV ratings or emotions.
I'd love to say the black community grasped these dynamics during the Simpson trial. But we didn't. For all we knew, Pratt had been killed years ago in some unreported prison riot. What we knew was that day after day, the Dream Team was questioning the very group of people who follow us in shopping malls, pull our cars over for no reason and often assume we're guilty before any facts are presented.
I can't lie. It felt good to see the police and the district attorneys embarrassed. If you've ever been detained on the side of the road for more than an hour and surrounded by a half-dozen cops while you desperately explain that you're a sports writer for the Charlotte Observer not a robbery suspect, then you can relate to how I felt during the Simpson trial. You don't easily forget getting pulled over for driving 30 mph in a 35-mph zone and getting cussed at and threatened because you're big and black. It leaves a scar.
Johnnie helped ease the pain. He beat the police with the very race card they placed in the deck themselves. No one can deny that. Yes, Robert Shapiro, in a shameless attempt to regain acceptance in the majority community after the Simpson verdict, tried to criticize Cochran for playing the race card from the "bottom of the deck." Shapiro, the original lead attorney, wanted distance from Cochran and O.J. Now that Johnnie is dead, don't be surprised if Shapiro tries to snuggle up closer to Cochran's legacy. Look how many sports writers and broadcasters love Muhammad Ali, now that he's harmless.