It did not take long after his death on April 11th that Orenthal James Simpson (better known as OJ Simpson to the public), became the immediate subject of intense commentary by people from all walks of life. For many people, this was not that much of a surprise. After all, the once former Heisman trophy winner, was an NFL great and at one time, all around likable (for some lovable) Simpson, who departed this earth at age 76. Slimmer, gray haired and notably aged, in his later years, he was hardly viewed as the same potential danger or menace to society that he was believed to be decades earlier. During the mid-1990s, he became a polarizing figure. Indeed, Simpson seemed to be in a racial twilight zone.

Over the past three decades, the nation was captivated by the Simpson case. The initial 1994 trial spawned numerous books, television programs, and a network, Court TV. Many law school professors discuss the trial on a routine basis and the event has become a permanent fixture in the pop culture fabric of our nation. A few years ago, ESPN’S OJ MADE IN AMERICA and FX’s Emmy award winning miniseries THE PEOPLE vs. OJ SIMPSON demonstrated society’s fascination with both Simpson and the Simpson trial. For many people over 45 years old, the trial is still deeply etched in their memories.

For those of you who are too young (like the majority of my college students and those of you under 45) to fully remember the trial, let me provide you with some details. The trial was a television spectacle with all the makings of a potential Hollywood movie. Sex and violence, interracial relationships and marriage, infidelity, alcoholism, sexual deviancy and a whole host of tantalizing, lurid details that titillated and fascinated the public. Stories covering the trial became daily tidbits as all venues of major media from weekly tabloids to highbrow publications intensely covered the trial. If these facts were not enough, you also had a REAL-LIFE cast of characters that would have been a fiction writer’s dream!

The strong, handsome, sex symbol former black hall of fame Heisman trophy winner. The former beauty queen, blonde haired blue-eyed murdered wife. Her tall, dark and handsome, murdered body builder friend. The blond-haired hedonistic beach boy. The Latin housekeeper. The Asian judge. The white/Jewish female prosecutor. The Black male prosecutor. The Black male defense attorney. The legendary WASP attorney. The Jewish defense attorney. The black ex-wife and kids from his first marriage. Biracial kids from his second marriage. The white racist cop and police force. It went on and on. It was theater of the surreal, so to speak.

This coming June would have marked 30 years since the famous/infamous trial of OJ. Simpson captivated much of the nation. Millions of people can remember sitting glued to their television sets viewing the riveting Ford Bronco slow-racing down the highway as police cars trailed slowly behind with passersby yelling, “Go O.J., GO!” It seems that every major cable network - ABC, CBS, NBC, etc. - covered the event. Even C-Span pre-empted their traditional coverage of congress to televise the drama. Fox News and MSNBC did not come along until 1996.

The trial, like many other issues in America, exposed the large racial divide in our nation. At the time, the nation was largely divided among racial lines with 62 percent of whites believing that Simpson was guilty and 68 percent of blacks feeling that he was innocent according to a CNN poll conducted at the time. Charges that the defense team lead by the late Johnnie Cochran was playing the “race card” to Time magazine darkening Simpson’s face on its cover elicited outrage from certain segments of the Black community and further divided the public. The racial gulf remained after the trial.

Many white Americans were shocked and, in some cases, outraged by witnessing groups of blacks cheering the verdict. To many of them, such a reaction demonstrated a high level of callousness and indifference to the plight of two brutally murdered victims. On the contrary, for many Black Americans, the verdict represented vindication from a justice system that had for so long vehemently judiciously mistreated, violated, railroaded, and incarcerated so many Black people (especially young black men) who in a number of cases were unjustly prosecuted without probable cause. In fact, Mr. Simpson was probably an afterthought, if a thought at all. In fact, the cheering was for how Johnnie Cochran, the Black lead defense attorney so skillfully, eloquently and powerfully commanded that courtroom.

I, myself, vividly remember the day the verdict was handed down, October 3, 1995. I was a graduate student working on my Ph.D. The day after the decision was rendered, I was in the campus library reading reactions to the verdict from various newspapers and on the internet which was still in its infancy at the time. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a well-built, slightly over six foot, athletic looking white man who looked to be in his late 20s, early 30s, walked up to the table where I was sitting. I could tell that he was very despondent and troubled. He saw the various papers sprawled over the table. Given my medium height and diminutive size coupled with the troubled look on his face and the initial radical reactions that some Whites had expressed about the verdict, I will admit that I was somewhat nervous that he might become violent. He asked if he could sit down. I agreed.

We chatted for about twenty minutes about the verdict. I gave him reasons as to why I thought the jury came to the conclusions that it did, and he reciprocated his feelings to me. Afterwards, he stood up, told me he felt better, shook my hand and left. I wished him a good day. Till this day, I often wonder how many people from different ethnic groups had similar conversations with one another. Quite frankly, we all know that there were some people across racial lines who did, in fact, have such thoughtful exchanges with one another.

To be fair, prior to his arrest in 1994, Simpson did indeed live a largely quiet, yet charmed, life. He was seen by many people as a congenial Black man of immense athletic talent who transcended race as well as often adopted a neutral stance on racial matters. He was a frequent guest in many B movies (in particular, the Naked Gun comedies) and a Monday Night Football commentator.

Many corporations such as Hertz Rent-a-Car eagerly sought him to endorse their products and he was only too glad to do so. He was a very effective spokesperson in that many Americans across racial lines (in particular, White Americans) liked, in fact loved, OJ Simpson. His popularity was such that whenever he walked into restaurants, athletic or other public events, many people stood up and cheered at his presence! And that intense admiration was reciprocated by him. When it came to race, Simpson often took nuanced stances that were designed to not offend White sensibilities on the issue.

Despite his efforts to straddle the lines of racial neutrality, Simpson soon became aware that once he was implicated in the murders of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her body builder, waiter friend, Ronald Goldman, the once Black Prince Charming image he had worked so stealthily and diligently to cultivate quickly evaporated. His image rapidly transformed from good Black man to big, bad, brutal Black buck n***er! The fact that Nicole Brown Simpson was a blond haired, blue-eyed former beauty queen, and that Ronald Goldman was talk, dark, muscular, handsome and a part time model intensified the hatred toward Simpson, particularly in racially conscious and certain restrictive social circles. Race did indeed matter!

To more than a few White Americans, Simpson suddenly conjured up all the images of the brutal, violent, sexually rapacious, Black man who obsessed after White women and was a potential, if not outright danger to the safety of White Americans and sanctity of White womanhood in particular. As more than a few White people saw it, Orenthal James Simpson was no different than “the majority of them,” so-to-speak. He was a Black man who had earned their trust, respect, love and admiration. Now he shocked and betrayed them.

While racial animosity toward Simpson was primarily directed toward him by Whites, there were a number of Black people who made their disdain with Simpson well known. In certain Black circles (not all), Simpson was seen as a White folk’s negro, soft shoe, sellout, self-hating negro and referred to in other less than flattering terms. His blackness was the subject of fierce debate.

It is very telling that many of Simpson’s critics (mostly White) who ruthlessly took him to task (and in my opinion, justifiably so) for two gruesome murders, seemed to either overlook or ignore the fact that Claus Von Bulow, Robert Blake and several other White men were exonerated under similar circumstances. In the case of Von Bulow, he went on to appear on the cover of Vanity Fair and became a social fixture in New York society circles.

Both sides were passionate in their stances. However, most rational people know that Simpson was incarcerated in 2008 for failing to be convicted in 1995. The judge and predominately White jury in the second trial were determined to see Mr. Simpson face justice for what they saw as his failure to face consequences in his initial 1995 acquittal. Even most legal experts conceded as much arguing that under normal circumstances, most people would have received 3 years, likely less or even probation for the sort of crime that Simpson was involved in in Nevada.

Moreover, anyone who is being honest with themselves, knows that if Simpson had been accused of murdering his first wife, Margurite Henry Simpson, a Black woman and another Black person, the searing level of public outrage and craven level of print and electronic media coverage would not have been anywhere near as intense. In fact, I would argue that might have been a minor cover story in Jet or Ebony Magazine and not much elsewhere outside of a few Black publications. Moreover, many online Black websites that cover Black news did not exist at the time. Such attitudes demonstrate that Black lives are too often of little, if any, significance to the larger society.

I was probably among those Black Americans in the minority, at the time, who felt that Simpson was guilty. I still feel that way. That being said, from an intellectual (not moral) standpoint, I could see why the jury came to the conclusion that it did. The prosecution failed to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt. It was interesting to note that exactly 13 years later, on the same date, October 3, 2008, O.J. Simpson was found guilty by a Las Vegas jury.

Without a doubt, OJ Simpson was a larger-than-life figure. Even now that he is no longer alive, there will be those who feel that he deprived two other human beings of the relatively long life he was able to live. To state that he was a controversial, complex human is to state the obvious. But it is a fact that needs to be stated. May he rest in peace.

BlackCommentator.com Guest

Commentator, Dr. Elwood Watson,

Historian, public speaker, and cultural

critic is a professor at East Tennessee

State University and author of the recent

book, Keepin' It Real: Essays on Race in

Contemporary America (University of

Chicago Press), which is available in

paperback and on Kindle via Amazon and

other major book retailers. Cotnact

Dr.Watson and BC.

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