Note to my readers: This poignant story is from an acquaintance who wishes to remain anonymous. It is a true story – a story from the heart – and these words are his alone. The author’s friend “Louis” is a pseudonym, but all other names, references, and facts are accurate.
My diversity story is really two stories with a connecting thread. The first is redemptive. The second, quite tragic. I hope that being vulnerable and sharing my personal experience will be of value to others seeking to move themselves and their community forward, in the right direction.
I grew up in the ‘60s in an idyllic, Norman Rockwellian small town in Ohio. Wholesome, picturesque - and no black people. In fact, the population of the entire county was less than 3% black. I had no black classmates or playmates. The first black person I remember seeing was on a trip to Virginia, where I encountered a gardener working at a home where we were guests. I was 5 or 6 years old, and at that time the civil rights movement was gaining prominent national attention. I remember staring at the gardener as if he were an alien.
My parents never used the N-word. I don’t remember any overt racial rhetoric coming from them. Nevertheless, I had exposure to the word in grade school, in an immature playground sort of way. It was used in a similar fashion to sexual slang – by schoolboys who had no real understanding of the meaning.
Why is it that we seem inclined to tribalism in a way that demonizes other tribes foreign to us? Don’t we all belong to one big tribe?
In the early ‘70s, our family moved to Texas in the summer before my 8th-grade year. The first person my age that I met was at a sporting goods store in Wichita Falls, Texas. He was with his Mom; I was with my Dad. We were both trying on football cleats and soon discovered we were trying out for the same junior high team. His name is Louis King, and he is black.
We became further acquainted during 2-a-day football practices, when not being screamed at by our spittle-spewing coach, Tex Yeager. As the school year began, I ran into Louis one day on the schoolyard. Thinking I was bringing ‘70s fashion to Texas, I had decked myself out in bell-bottom pants and multi-color suede leather, platform shoes. The girls were sure to be impressed.
Making conversation Louis asked, “Hey, where’d you get those shoes?” Without thinking I blurted out, “I stole ‘em off a dead ------.” Yes, I said it. I had probably given that same ignorant response to that same question a half dozen times before to my equally ignorant schoolboy friends back home. I was mortified. As soon as the words left my mouth, I turned white, then red, then had a profound paradigm shift. That moment has stuck with me my whole life.
What did Louis do? The same thing he probably had done in too many similarly awkward situations he faced. He laughed it off; we answered the school bell and never mentioned the incident again. Well, the redemptive part of my story is that Louis and I went on to become fast friends. We graduated high school together. We went off to college together at Texas Tech University and roomed together in a dormitory for two years. We graduated again. I married (Louis was in my wedding) and moved to Amarillo. He married and moved to Austin.
We stayed in touch over the years as we tread our separate paths. Years later, I eventually talked him into joining me at a company I had begun working at in Texarkana. We started families. After their birth, I became godfather to his twin sons. And as recently as a couple of years ago, I had the privilege of saying a few words about our friendship at an event marking his retirement from that same company in Texarkana. I count him among my very few life-long friends.
My lesson from this part of the story is that you should not be afraid to face your own ignorance. Expand your tribe. Do not defend the indefensible, for there is great value to be found when you move forward in the right direction. Have the self-awareness to know when you are ignorant – when you are wrong.
The second part of my story is not nearly as gratifying. During our first year at college, Louis had met a classmate named Tim Cole. Timothy Brian Cole. The three of us often hung out together, doing what college guys do: studying, watching soap operas or football games, drinking beer, and chasing girls. Tim even tried out as a walk-on for the Red Raider basketball team, leveraging skills he developed on his Ft. Worth Dunbar high school team. He did not make the roster, but I admired him for his initiative.
College life moved on, Tim left after two years to join the Army, and I lost touch with him. What I did not come to know until many years later is this: after Tim completed his military service, he returned to Tech to complete his degree. I had also returned to Tech around the same time to pursue my master’s in engineering. It was the mid-‘80s, and the local media was reporting on a string of sexual assaults on or near campus. Media named the presumed repeat-offending criminal the Tech Rapist.
Four women had been assaulted, including Michele Mallin, who in March of 1985 was abducted when parking her car in a church parking lot across from her dormitory. The offender forced his way into the driver’s seat, drove to a vacant field outside town, and forcibly raped her. The perpetrator then made her drive the car back to Lubbock where he took $2 in cash, a ring, and a watch from the victim and left on foot. Mallin, who is white, described her rapist to police as a young African-American man wearing a yellow shirt and sandals but didn’t give many other details. She said he had smoked cigarettes throughout the attack.
The Lubbock Police Department stationed an undercover female detective on and around campus, and Tim Cole fell into the trap. One evening he drove to a pizza place near the abduction site and, in his friendly way, engaged in conversation with the undercover detective, asking if she needed a lift. Later, the police ran Tim’s license plates and discovered that he had recently reported being robbed. Falsely claiming that they were investigating the robbery, detectives met him at his apartment, took his photo, and placed the color Polaroid in a collage of five black and white mug shots. He was facing the camera; the other subjects were facing to the side.
You probably know where this is going. The rape victim picked Tim’s photo. The police celebrated and, with that subliminal reassurance, she later picked him out of a lineup. Despite the fact that they had fingerprints from a cigarette lighter that did not match Tim’s, and despite the fact that Tim could not smoke because he had severe asthma… Despite the fact that Tim had been studying at his apartment the night of the attack where his brother had invited friends over for a card game, and despite the fact that similar attacks continued to occur in the months following his arrest…Tim was convicted by a jury of his “peers” and sentenced to 25 years in prison.
Tim was offered parole if he confessed to the crime, but he adamantly refused.
In 1995, after the statute of limitations on the 1985 rape had expired, a Texas prisoner named Jerry Wayne Johnson wrote to police and prosecutors in Lubbock County confessing that he had committed the rape. Johnson was serving a 99-year sentence after convictions for two sexual assaults. His letters were not acknowledged.
In 1999, Tim Cole died in prison after an asthma attack, tragically never knowing the true perpetrator had confessed.
A year after Tim died, Johnson wrote another letter to the supervising judge, and again it was rejected without comment. Eventually, he was able to track down Tim’s Mom and later the Texas Innocence Project. Attorneys sought posthumous DNA testing in the case and Lubbock prosecutors finally cooperated. The testing excluded Tim and implicated Johnson as the true criminal.
A Texas judge exonerated Tim at an unprecedented posthumous hearing on April 7, 2009. Governor Rick Perry signed the pardon after Attorney General Greg Abbott wrote an opinion. Since then, the state of Texas has passed the Timothy Cole Act, increasing compensation paid to exonerees. In 2012, a state historical marker was placed near his grave in Ft. Worth, and the Lubbock City Council voted to create a memorial. A 19-foot tall bronze and granite statue of Tim now stands at the corner of 19th Street and University Avenue. It is a stark reminder. A stark reminder of injustice and racial ambivalence.
Why did this happen? What lessons can we learn? How does it fit into the rising chorus of voices today? Can we come to grips with our own racial biases when we hear stories like this? If so, what can we do about it? I challenge you to give it thought.
What will you do?