In order to fully appreciate how the O. J. Simpson murder trial illuminated the state of racial relations in the United States, it is helpful to review an event from several years earlier in the same large, ethnically diverse city of Los Angeles. On the night of March 3, 1991, a paroled robber named Rodney King was pulled over by the police following a chase. In the subsequent moments, King was badly beaten by police officers using their nightsticks, hands and feet. The entire episode was captured on video by a nearby civilian. When the video was shown on television news broadcasts across the country, it was indicative to many African Americans of the treatment they endured on a regular basis at the hands of law enforcement. Four Los Angeles police officers were tried for assault and were acquitted in a court of law on April 29, 1992. The response to this miscarriage of justice was wide-scale rioting across the city by its large African American population, with fires and looting of stores featured on the nightly news just as had been the video of the initial assault.
The Rodney King case and subsequent riots are brought up for a reason: the trial in 1995 of O. J. Simpson for the murders of his ex-wife and her friend took place in the context of the outcome of the King case. In other words, perceptions common among African Americans of justice denied in a case involving primarily white police officers and black victims and the rioting that destroyed parts of Los Angeles were still very much in the minds of the city’s, and the nation’s, African American citizens.
When O. J. Simpson was arrested for the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, the case immediately broke down along racial lines. To many African Americans, it was yet another case of police and a white-dominated power structure persecuting one of their own, and a very prominent member of their own to boot: an African American who had excelled at sports both in Los Angeles (at the University of Southern California) and in the National Football League. In addition, Simpson had carved out a reasonably successful career acting, mainly in the Naked Gun film series. This was no obscure, small-time criminal, but a successful, wealthy African American. That he was now under arrest for murder was yet another affront to a community accustomed to persecution and mistreatment in the criminal justice system.
Seriously aggravating the situation was the ineptitude with which the trial was held, with lawyers playing to television cameras as much as to the jury and prosecutors and a judge who seemed in over their heads. One of Simpson’s high-profile defense attorneys, Johnnie Cochran, an African American, famously boiled a wealth of physical evidence down to the matter of whether a bloody glove found at the scene of the crime belonged to the defendant. “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit,” a rhyme evocative of a seminal figure in the histories of sports and civil rights, Muhammed Ali. In the end, the jury did vote to acquit, to the delight of many African Americans.