What O.J. Simpson and his murder trial meant to Black America

Nearly 30 years later, O.J. Simpson’s murder trial in Los Angeles still evokes strong memories. There was the glove. The Bronco chase. The minute-by-minute national television coverage.

And, for many Americans, Simpson’s case will also be remembered for how it exposed the deep divisions between Black and White Americans.

The nation’s view of his 1995 acquittal for the murder of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and a friend, Ronald Goldman, largely cleaved along racial lines, though time has bridged some of the gap. Simpson died on April 10 at 76 years old.

Coming just a few years after the acquittal of four officers who beat Black motorist Rodney King in 1992 and the 1991 killing of Black teenager Latasha Harlins by a store clerk in Los Angeles, Simpson’s treatment by the police and media was viewed by many in the Black community as proof that even wealthy celebrities couldn’t escape racism in America, said Amilcar Shabazz, a professor of Afro-American Studies at the University Massachusetts at Amherst.

“When the verdict was reached we had one side of the screen with White people crestfallen and crying and then we had on the other side of the screen, Black people jumping up and down for joy,” Shabazz said.

Those racial divisions remain, he said. “It’s because we haven’t repaired the social fabric in a way that we like to pretend we have because we fall back on race and racism at the drop of a hat or a drop of the glove in this case,” Shabazz said.

While the reaction to the verdict was largely portrayed in the media along racial lines at the time, it was always more complicated than that, said James Lance Taylor, a politics professor at the University of San Francisco. “The truth is many millions of Black people thought O.J. Simpson was probably guilty,” Taylor said. “There was just so much wrapped up in the O.J. case that was connected to the Black experience in America.”


Twenty years after the verdict, a 2015 Washington Post-ABC News poll showed Black Americans were less likely to believe Simpson was guilty, compared to White Americans, though by 2007 the gap had started to narrow. In 1997, 31 percent of Black Americans said that they were “definitely” or “probably” sure of Simpson’s guilt. By 2015, that share had risen to 57 percent. In comparison, 83 percent of White Americans said Simpson was guilty in 2015, about the same share as had held that position in 1997.

It’s not that Black people have changed their minds about Simpson’s innocence, Taylor said. “I think in the barbershops today, Black people are saying, ‘he got away with it, but the police got away with killing a lot more of us,’” Taylor said. “That’s the mentality.”

Taylor was living in Los Angeles at the time of the murders and said he remembers the day that Simpson led police on a car chase and how tens of thousands of people, including many White people, lined the streets and highways yelling, “Go, O.J., Go.”

But far before the trial, many Black Americans already felt that Simpson had turned his back on the Black community, Taylor said, noting that he reportedly liked to tell friends, “I’m not Black, I’m O.J.”

Local police prepared for riots if Simpson was convicted, Taylor said. “But Black people didn’t love O.J. like that. This wasn’t about O.J. the person,” he said. “O.J. was just an extension of the general polarization between Black America and law enforcement.”

“The sympathy for O.J. is not as deep as we think it is” in the Black community, Taylor said.

Kevin B. Blackistone, ESPN panelist and professor of the practice at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, wrote in a 2016 Washington Post column, “Simpson didn’t transcend his race; he escaped it like it was a would-be tackler. He came from the black working-poor side of town, but his athleticism trumped that and landed him in an exclusive white university in Los Angeles.”

Rev. Amos Brown of San Francisco’s Third Baptist Church, a longtime friend of Eunice Simpson, Simpson’s mother, said it’s difficult for him to disentangle the football star’s crimes from the challenges he faced, including the ever-present threat of violence in his neighborhood growing up. “O.J. Simpson and far too many young Black males to this day have been met with attitudes and practices that define them as being less than human,” he said.

Simpson was introduced to a new audience in 2016 when two television series about the former running back captivated a generation too young to have known him as a Heisman Trophy winner and one of the most recognizable personalities in the country.

Phillip Lamarr Cunningham, an assistant professor of media studies at Wake Forest University, said many of his students view Simpson as a true-crime figure rather than the athlete he remembers.

Cunningham, who was a young man during the trial, said that he still struggles with the not guilty verdict. “Just like everybody else, I had to wrestle with the reality that he very well may have done it, alongside the fact that he is this Black man who had for all intents and purposes, made it,” Cunningham said.

Los Angeles was a “powder keg” at the time of Simpson’s trial, still reeling from the Rodney King acquittal and other racially divisive cases, said Marc Watts, who covered the Simpson trial for CNN and is currently the chief brand officer for the African American Leadership Forum.

“Many African Americans believed that O.J. Simpson was the revenge verdict,” Watts said. “It was the one Black people had won in response to some of the ones Black people had lost.”

For many Black people, the trial turned on the testimony of investigating detective Mark Fuhrman, who denied using a racial profanity on the witness stand, Watts said. Simpson’s defense team produced audiotapes of Fuhrman using the word multiple times and Fuhrman later pleaded no contest to committing perjury during the trial. He couldn’t be immediately reached for comment.

“That was the day I felt the jury, which was predominantly African American, pretty much bought the idea from the dream team that Fuhrman was a racist rogue White cop,” Watts said.

Watts says he will never forget the day of the verdict, Oct. 3, 1995, when he stood on risers outside of the Los Angeles courthouse and heard the roar of the crowd gathered outside with the media. When he arrived home that evening he watched news footage of joyous Black Americans and frustrated White Americans reacting to the verdict.

“It showed us even back then that our country was tragically racially polarized,” Watts said. “And that is still true today.”