The Case of O.J. Simpson

O.J.: Made in America

a five-part ESPN documentary directed by Ezra Edelman
O.J. Simpson with his first wife, Marguerite Whitley, Amherst, New York, 1973; from Ezra Edelman’s documentary O.J.: Made in America
Mickey Osterreicher/ESPN Films
O.J. Simpson with his first wife, Marguerite Whitley, Amherst, New York, 1973; from Ezra Edelman’s documentary O.J.: Made in America

Martin Luther King and others have said that Sunday in America is the most segregated day of the week, but the O.J. Simpson verdict, acquittal on all charges, came in on a Tuesday. The jury, after having been sequestered for the better part of a year, took only three hours to deliberate. It knew enough and now wanted to go home. Leaning into the jury box, Simpson’s defense attorney Johnny Cochran had closed with a rousing speech that the verdict would be not just about Simpson but would be a vote for racial justice generally. Are you, members of the jury, with the Brothers or with the Man?—as coprosecutor Christopher Darden described it ahead of time in an objection to the defense strategy. Unknown to a lot of the white world, this idea of voting for something larger than O.J. was felt in many places, not just at the lawyers’ tables.

When the 1995 verdict was announced it was a sunny October morning in LA. Members of the LAPD had come on horseback to the front of the courthouse, in case there were riots. People at work and at home were glued to the broadcast. I myself was standing in front of my television set while my baby napped upstairs, snoozing through his last full year of racial blindness, a condition Simpson quixotically believed in and sought for much of his adult life. “I’m not black; I’m O.J.,” he repeatedly said, though racial community and fellow feeling would come to his rescue in the end.

Even in the Bronco “chase”—a minimalist newsreel thriller à la Andy Warhol—those who had thought of Simpson as “white” joked bleakly that now that he had cop cars following him he had become black again. (A similar line is uttered by a neighbor over the fictional rendition of Christopher Darden’s fence in the exposition-jammed dialogue of The People v. O.J. Simpson, the docudrama that garnered five Emmys and disconcertingly serves up the case as entertainment and courtroom soap opera.) Young people had cheered on the Bronco from highway overpasses.

On the day of the verdict, stock trading dwindled. Water usage dropped. So much work stopped that it was estimated that there was “480 million dollars in lost productivity.” Such nationwide attention and suspense suggested that at least some part of the public was alert to this verdict as a species of referendum. Could an African-American man with money get the same breaks that white men with money did? Simpson was a prize to be competed for.

Black Americans erupted in jubilation at the news of Simpson’s freedom. Crowds hugged in the…

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