Unforgettable divide of O.J. Simpson trial is still fresh, even in death

by Kerith Gabriel

I was 13 years old, but I can still recall hearing my mother’s shriek like it was yesterday, followed by her repeated words of “THANK YOU, JESUS,” over and over again.

Her elation came from the fact that after nine exhaustive and divisive months — centered around the trial of football legend Orenthal James Simpson in the killing of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman — Simpson was acquitted of all charges.

My mother was not obtuse to the fact that two young lives had ended horrifically. Speaking with her on Thursday morning after the news that Simpson had died at the age of 76, she said, “The whole thing is just sad,” remembering the gruesome story of Nicole and Ron’s death. In the same breath, she also vividly recalled how the whole tale forced friends, neighbors, and colleagues into factions. You either stood with O.J. or you didn’t.

“And honestly, I still believe to this day that side depended on what color you were,” she said. “As a Black person, you didn’t want to believe he could do something so heinous, but at the same time, you were around so many white people who just believed at their core he was guilty, and you wanted them to be wrong about it. About us.”

The O.J. saga coincided with a time in my family’s life when we were all thrust into a great deal of cultural change. We had been a year into a move from Hunting Park to Ardmore to be closer to my single mother’s new role as a geriatric nurse at a Main Line hospital. She had been working there for about a year, intending to move her kids to what she believed were safer confines and better schools.

Ardmore was an idyllic place to grow up. The silence, compared to the police sirens I heard on any given night in our previous home, was jarring. But Ardmore was devoid of a great deal of diversity, or in my mind at that time, people who understood that there was life that didn’t look like the Main Line.

I vividly recall spending much of my childhood trying to justify my presence as the only Black person in a classroom, at a social gathering, or on a soccer field to white people who wanted to know how I got there. It was exhausting.

Come to think of it, it’s what I imagine living in Brentwood, Calif. would be like — not in the sense of million-dollar properties and luxury cars lining the streets, but the close-minded belief that anyone who didn’t come from this life isn’t on the same level, especially if they’re a person of color.

No one ever wondered how O.J. landed in Brentwood. He was football royalty, in addition to being a beloved actor and entertainer. Simpson never saw himself as Black or white before his trial, famously telling a journalist that his biggest accomplishment was “people look at me like a man first, not a Black man.”

But that 1995 trial cast a completely different light. His defense team used race as a staple for his acquittal — and it worked. The verdict given to Simpson made many people of color, including my mother, come out in support of him, carrying a torch for a man they’d never met because his acquittal in some odd way meant we were all free. Free to be in spaces not readily associated with us. Free to continue to consider ourselves worthy of the same opportunities and justice.

But the trial also divided people. It broke up friendships, closed off contact with acquaintances and, as my mother recalled, turned colleagues into enemies.

“It was surprising,” she said. “People you worked with for years were just a bit more cold after that verdict. You didn’t bring it up because you didn’t want to cause a stir. You didn’t celebrate publicly. The conversations I had about the trial were only with other Black people. It was just a weird time in this country because that trial wasn’t just about O.J., you saw just how raw race relations still were in this country and how far we still had to go.”

Coincidentally, to take a trip down the timeline of social threads on Thursday on the subject of Simpson’s passing, decades removed from the trial that captivated a nation, it’s evident the ball hasn’t moved too far toward the goal line.

Kerith Gabriel is a senior editor for The Philadelphia Inquirer, with a focus on local sports coverage in Pennsylvania, particularly in Philadelphia.