A year ago today in the small town of Valdosta, Ga., Kendrick Johnson, a 17-year-old junior at Lowndes High School, was found dead, and three stories emerged.
The first was told by the police about a teenager trying to retrieve a shoe out of a rolled-up mat in the high school gym. He fell in, no one noticed and his dead body was found a day later. Case closed.
The second story was told by the reports. The first autopsy said the death looked to have been an accident caused by “positional asphyxia” or, plainly, suffocation. Months later his body was exhumed, revealing that several organs were missing and in their place, newspaper had been stuffed. A second autopsy also revealed that Kendrick suffered a fatal blow. Photos emerged, and the teen’s face looked swollen and beaten.
He was barely recognizable.
The third story is now being told by his parents—to the media, to lawyers, to investigators, to a nation. Their story: Our child’s death was no accident.
This is a story of sadness and loss. Where you stand along the racial divide might determine which version you believe. This is a story about parents who aren’t allowed to grieve because they are busy trying to solve the case.
And that leads us to Jasper, Texas, where the family of 28-year-old Alfred Wright reported him missing shortly after his Nov. 7, 2013, disappearance and, after receiving little to no help from the sheriff’s department, formed their own search party and found his body on Nov. 25, not far from where they told the police he was last seen.
Late comedian Patrice O’Neal used to do a bit about the lengths to which a police department would go to investigate a tragedy and how the time devoted to the case was directly proportional to the color of the victim’s skin. O’Neal’s punch line? For whites, the comedian would say, that time would include every minute allowed by the department. For blacks, O’Neal would hold his hand up above his eyes as if trying to see something in the distance and then shrug.
The sobering truth in the humor is that all too often there are three consequences when an African-American family loses a loved one in highly questionable circumstances.