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25 Years On, The Lasting Cultural Impact Of The O.J. Simpson Trial

O.J. Simpson watches as the jury in his double-murder trial enters the courtroom, Feb. 2, 1995, in Los Angeles, Calif. His attorneys (left to right) Carl Douglas, Johnnie Cochran Jr. and Robert Shapiro look over documents. (Pool/AFP/Getty Images)
O.J. Simpson watches as the jury in his double-murder trial enters the courtroom, Feb. 2, 1995, in Los Angeles, Calif. His attorneys (left to right) Carl Douglas, Johnnie Cochran Jr. and Robert Shapiro look over documents. (Pool/AFP/Getty Images)

With Meghna Chakrabarti

Twenty-five years after the O.J. Simpson case began, how did it change our views on justice, celebrity and race?


Steve Futterman, West Coast correspondent for CBS News and CBS Radio. He covered every aspect of O.J. Simpson’s criminal trial, his later civil trial and the 2007-2008 Las Vegas robbery trial. ( @sfutterman)

Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, professor of law at Columbia Law School and the University of California, Los Angeles. ( @sandylocks)

Author of an essay in “ Birth of a Nation’hood: Gaze, Script, and Spectacle in the O.J. Simpson Case.” Co-founder of the African American Policy Forum.

From The Reading List

Associated Press: “ AP Exclusive: OJ Simpson says ‘Life is fine’ after prison” — “Twenty-five years after the grisly killings that transformed him from Hall of Fame football hero to murder suspect, 71-year-old O.J. Simpson says he is happy and healthy living in Las Vegas, plays golf nearly every day and stays in touch with his children.

“‘Life is fine,’ Simpson recently told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from his home.

“He added that neither he nor his children want to talk about June 12, 1994, the night his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman were stabbed to death. Simpson was ultimately acquitted of the crime in what came to be known as ‘The Trial of the Century.’

“‘We don’t need to go back and relive the worst day of our lives,’ he said as Wednesday’s anniversary of the killings approached. ‘The subject of the moment is the subject I will never revisit again. My family and I have moved on to what we call the “no negative zone.” We focus on the positives.’ ”

Frontline: “ The O.J. Verdict: Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw” — “ What was the O.J. trial’s meaning for you?

“I think the O.J. Simpson trial was a revelation about the ongoing patterns of racial difference in American society. It is longstanding; it is historical. But over the 20 years or so since the civil rights movement, there had been an ideology that forced people away from racial conversations, away from recognizing that there were still tremendous disparities both in life experience and opinion, primarily among African Americans and white Americans.

“The O.J. trial ripped the veil off of that denial and made people confront directly that we were still living in a history, we were still living in a reality, and it couldn’t just go away by wishing it away.

What were the differences in perception about the trial?

“The most significant difference can be summed up with a couple of flip things that are often said about the trial; for example, ‘The defense played a race card,’ or, ‘The jury engaged in empty racial payback.’ That’s a view that sees race dialogue, sees discussion about race discrimination, essentially as a game. It’s a make-pretend. There is no reality here. It’s ‘We’re engaging with people who are using race as an excuse.’ That’s a perspective that not all white people have, but that’s sort of the position that was taken in the debate.

“And the other side of the debate was that race is real. We’re talking Los Angeles. It had just been through the Rodney King beating, just been through a major racial uprising, just had been through an acquittal of not only several police officers, but a Korean shopkeeper who had killed an unarmed young black woman. So for people who experienced that, they looked at those episodes and said, ‘Either that could have been me, or that could have been someone that I know.’

“So you have one side that sees race as just a fantasy and another side that sees race as a reality that shapes their everyday worldview, and that’s the prism that two sides went into and came out of that trial with.”

National Review: “ The O.J. Case at 25” — “On June 12, amidst daily hyperventilation across the Internet and cable TV about our current cultural scene, America will mark the 25th anniversary of the murders of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, killings for which Nicole’s ex-husband — the retired NFL superstar and movie/TV fixture O.J. Simpson — was soon arrested. By January of the following year, the ‘Trial of the Century’ had begun, ending nearly a year later with an acquittal for ‘The Juice’ despite overwhelming evidence. He was later found civilly liable for wrongful death, and he was imprisoned from 2008 to 2017 on armed-robbery and kidnapping charges that, in a convoluted way, ultimately stemmed from that civil verdict.

“The O.J. case certainly didn’t invent ‘outrage culture’ — which reached its pre-social-media peak during Vietnam and Watergate. Nor was it the first celebrity courtroom case about the ‘deathstyles’ of the rich and famous, a fact to which Claus von Bulow, the Menendez Brothers, and Jean Harris can attest. But the trial was both the lowest moment for old-fashioned legacy media — ‘respectable’ newspapers, magazines, book publishers, and nightly network news shows — and also their last gasp of untrammeled relevance before the ‘World Wide Web’ (as it was then starting to be known) rewrote everybody’s story.

“First the obvious parallels. Race relations were at a boiling point. Some of the top movies of the past few years had been Colors, Stand and Deliver, Do the Right Thing, Boyz in the Hood, Falling Down, and Hoop Dreams. The ‘Willie Horton ad,’ with its famous ‘coded racial appeals,’ was only a few years old, as was the Rodney King beating. California was still emerging from a brutal recession of collapsed property values, foreclosures, and downsized defense jobs.”

The Atlantic: “ What O. J. Simpson Means to Me” — “My reaction to O. J. Simpson’s arrest for the murder of his ex-wife Nicole Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman was atypical. It was 1994. I was a young black man attending a historically black university in the majority-black city of Washington, D.C., with zero sympathy for Simpson, zero understanding of the sympathy he elicited from my people, and zero appreciation for the defense team’s claim that Simpson had been targeted because he was black.

“O. J. Simpson wasn’t black. He came of age in the 1960s—the era of Muhammad Ali’s opposition to the Vietnam War and John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s black-power salute at the 1968 Olympics. But the O. J. Simpson I knew, and the one poignantly depicted this year in Ezra Edelman’s epic documentary, O.J.: Made in America, recognized only one struggle—the struggle to advance O. J. Simpson. When the activist Harry Edwards attempted to enlist Simpson in the Olympic boycott, Simpson rebuffed him and later claimed that organizers like Edwards had tried to ‘use’ him. Protest ‘hurt Tommie Smith, it hurt John Carlos,’ Simpson said. Smith and Carlos were ‘standing on [Edwards’s] platform, [when] they should have been standing on their own platform.’

“My view that Simpson existed beyond the borders of black America was based not merely on his narrow political consciousness, but on his own words. ‘My biggest accomplishment,’ Simpson once told the journalist Robert Lipsyte, ‘is that people look at me like a man first, not a black man.’ Simpson went on to tell the story of a wedding he’d attended with his first wife and a group of black friends. At some point he overheard a white guest remark, ‘Look, there’s O. J. Simpson and some n——.’ Simpson confessed that the remark hurt. But that wasn’t the point of the story. The point was not being seen as one of the ‘n——.’ ”

Sydney Wertheim and Brian Hardzinski produced this hour for broadcast.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.