Cochran Would Be ‘Leading The Charge’ In Ferguson, Says Actor | WBEZ
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Cochran Would Be 'Leading The Charge' In Ferguson, Says Actor Courtney Vance

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Twenty years ago, when the O.J. Simpson verdict was delivered, actor Courtney B. Vance says he celebrated — but he wasn't exactly cheering for the former NFL player.

"I cheered for Emmett Till," — the African-American teenager lynched in Mississippi in 1955 — he says. "I cheered for all the strange fruit that hung on the trees for three centuries."

For a long time, he says, black people had nowhere to go for justice. And that's why he cheered for Simpson's lawyer, Johnnie Cochran. "Finally, on the biggest stage, a black man worked the system and got another black man off."

Vance plays Cochran in American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson, premiering Feb. 2 on FX. It's about what happened in that Los Angeles courtroom when a beloved football hero and black celebrity went on trial charged with murdering his ex-wife and her friend. The show makes the trial feel relevant again — especially when it talks about race, the police and the judicial system.

Cochran, who died in 2005, was a hero to many African-Americans.

"In a real sense, there's a void when he passed away," says Vance. "I mean, if Johnnie was here, he'd be leading the charge in all of these cases. You know, all the chokeholds, and the Fergusons ... all of them."

Interview Highlights

On his reaction to the Simpson not-guilty verdict

You look at the Emmett Till case ... it was cut and dry: Those two guys [Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam] did it, they admitted they did it, and then an all-white jury got them off. ... Now, was [Simpson] guilty? We don't know. But that wasn't his job, Johnnie Cochran. His job was to poke holes in the prosecution and it was on the prosecution to prove his guilt. So Johnnie Cochran — we celebrate him doing his job.

On how Cochran fought to have race discussed during the Simpson trial, despite Simpson famously saying, "I'm not black, I'm O.J."

He just said: "Can we just talk about it? Is it a crime to talk about? Can we do that?" As attorneys, everything introduced is important and certain things you want to block from being discussed. ...

You've got a black man married to a white woman, living the American dream lifestyle ... but does not think he's black, doesn't want to be associated with black people — but gets in trouble. And with a black jury, Johnnie Cochran knew that in order for the black man — who thought he wasn't black — in order for him to get off, he needed to all of the sudden to be black.

On how trials are opportunities for dialogue

[The racial divide] is so deep that it's going to take everyone just putting their gloves aside and letting it be talked out. You're not all going to understand it today, not tomorrow. But that's why I said to myself: "Please let the Ferguson grand jury have a trial. Please let them talk it out. Let the yearlong process go through." And let it not be like the O.J. trial where after the trial people just ... go back to their corners. Let there be a town meeting. It was a perfect opportunity to be what needed to be done — to talk it through.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit NPR.

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