Erica Smith, of Brunswick, Ga., leaves a small paper sign on a memorial at the spot where an unarmed black man was shot and killed Friday, May 8, 2020, in Brunswick Ga. Two men have been charged with murder in the February shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery, whom they had pursued in a truck after spotting him running in their neighborhood. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
Photo: John Bazemore/AP
Photo: John Bazemore/AP

Opinion: Chris Carr and a different reaction to a racially charged killing

Last week, Chris Carr reached deep inside and touched his inner Amos Akerman. “I’ve been thinking of him a lot,” Georgia’s attorney general said via his home computer on Tuesday.

It was our first conversation since the pandemic closed the state Capitol in March. I’d shaved for the special occasion. He had put on a clean shirt.

For Carr, the last eight days have been a blur, beginning with a tag on Facebook from a friend, which led the attorney general to his first look at the leaked video documenting the Feb. 23 death of 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery at the hands a white father and son in Brunswick, Ga.

The armed pair had seen the young black man jog by, surmised he was a burglar, and chased Arbery down in a pick-up. The video was made by a friend of Gregory and Travis McMichael who had followed behind. A series of three silent local prosecutors had had access to the recording for 10 weeks.

“That’s the first I ever knew of the video. I was stunned. It made you sick to your stomach. The first reaction was, let’s find out what happened,” Carr said. At 9:42 p.m., the attorney general sent out a statement via Twitter.

ADDS THAT THE AP HAS NOT BEEN ABLE TO VERIFY THE SOURCE OF THE VIDEO - This image from video posted on Twitter Tuesday, May 5, 2020, purports to show Ahmaud Arbery, left, struggling with Travis McMichael over a shotgun on a street in a neighborhood outside Brunswick, Ga., on Feb. 23, 2020. McMichael's father, Gregory, who was also at the scene, said Arbery was shot as the two men fought over the gun, according to the police report. The AP has not been able to verify the source of the video. (Twitter via AP)
Photo: AP

“Based on the video footage and news reports that I have seen, I am deeply concerned with the events surrounding the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery,” Carr wrote. Gov. Brian Kemp, who had already signaled his interest in a “thorough, independent investigation,” endorsed the sentiment within minutes.

The GBI was called in. The McMichaels were arrested and jailed within 24 hours. Carr promised an investigation into prosecutorial conduct and invited the U.S. Department of Justice to peer into the incident. On Monday, with the third prosecutor admitting that the case had grown beyond his staff’s capacity, Carr assigned the investigation of Arbrey’s killing to Cobb County District Attorney Joyette Holmes. Who happens to be African American.

You might say Carr was just doing his job, and he would politely agree. But he is also doing much more. Carr is showing Southern Republicans a way out of the racially polarized hole they have dug for themselves over the last two generations.

There was no hemming or hawing. No reflexive effort to protect local political networks. Once the video was out, the condemnation was sharp enough and quick enough to shut down blame-the-victim campaigns we’ve seen when other black men have died. The lack of equivocation – sparked by Carr and followed by other Republicans across the state – has largely set the tone for reaction on social media, on Fox News, and maybe from the White House, too.

There’s scant talk of very fine people standing on both sides of this homicide.

October 12, 2016, Atlanta - Chris Carr, left, address reporters with Governor Nathan Deal, right, during a press conference where Carr was appointed the next Attorney General following the Board of Regents vote to hire current Attorney General Sam Olens as president of Kennesaw State University in Atlanta, on Wednesday, October 12, 2016. Carr will take his new position on November 1.(DAVID BARNES / DAVID.BARNES@AJC.COM)
Photo: David Barnes/DAVID BARNES / AJC

Which brings us back to Amos Akerman, a political hero whom Carr has only recently discovered – and adopted as a worthy mentor.

Akerman is bit of suppressed Georgia history — a New Hampshire-born, slave-owning attorney who had wandered into Georgia before the Civil War. He opposed secession yet enlisted in the Confederate army when fighting broke out in 1861.

But with the war’s end, Akerman embraced the Republican party and its unsuccessful attempt to create a Southern society in which former slaves had the necessary political and legal standing as citizens to protect themselves from their former masters.

Akerman was run out of Elberton after leading a group of former slaves to a ballot box and settled in Cartersville. President Ulysses Grant first named him the local U.S. attorney, then promoted him to attorney general of the United States. Until he was hounded from office, Akerman led the fight against the Ku Klux Klan in the South, which was engaged in a multi-state campaign of murder to stop black self-rule before it could get started.

Carr is a former protégé of U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, and so Akerman’s suit fits him well. Like Isakson before him, Carr has made sure he is at Ebenezer Baptist Church every Martin Luther King Jr. Day in January. He has endorsed the idea of putting a bell tower atop Stone Mountain, over the heads of Robert E. Lee, Jeff Davis and Stonewall Jackson, in honor of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

Last year, Carr and I were both in Cartersville for the ceremony to install a historical marker outside the site of his new hero’s homestead. “Amos Akerman, in a very short period of time, in those two years, looked evil in the face,” the state attorney general said then.

Carr has maintained his ideological footing with members of his party. As attorney general, he is part of the effort to have the Affordable Care Act declared unconstitutional. He spoke out against President Donald Trump’s impeachment.

When I pointed out that his appointment of Holmes to lead the prosecution of Arbrey’s killers would be well received by many African Americans in Georgia, Carr emphasized her experience as a former prosecutor, defense attorney and judge, but made no mention of her race.

Carr is a young man, only 48. But demography is a brutal master. If he and other Republicans are to have political careers in 10 years, in 20 years, then their party will have to find a way to open its arms to people of color. In a way that it has not yet done.

And so I pressed. Doesn’t what happened this last week in the Arbrey investigation give us some glimpse of what an inclusive GOP might look like? I asked.

From a distance, Carr gave a slight nod of his head. “It’s not only important to hear, but to see that this matters. To all of us – Republican, Democrat, independent alike,” he said. “I think it’s important for people to know that Republicans value each and every human life. I think it’s important for everyone to understand that civil rights is not within the purview of any one party.”

“It’s important that everybody gets a fair trial,” he said. “That includes the victim.”

Legal precedents are important in courtrooms, but biographic precedents are what can rivet our attention elsewhere. They show us what is possible, if one is willing to bear the cost. What one human being did once, another can do again.

In early February, when Ahmaud Arbery was still alive and jogging, Carr picked up “Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America.” The Gilbert King book, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2013, tells the story of four black men falsely accused of raping a 17-year-old white woman in Groveland, Fla., in 1949.

One was shot by a mob on the spot. Another was killed on the side of the road by the local sheriff, while his prisoner was handcuffed to another man accused in the rape. Multiple trials would condemn that survivor and another to years in prison.

Marshall, a future U.S. Supreme Court justice, was already a storied defense attorney, but wasn’t licensed to practice in Florida. He needed a white attorney at his side in the courtroom. An Orlando lawyer finally stepped up. He was Alex Akerman Jr., grandson of Amos.

Chris Carr finished the book just a few days before a friend pointed him to a most disturbing video on Facebook.

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About the Author

Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway
Jim Galloway is a three-decade veteran of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution who writes the Political Insider blog and column.