Before Kalief Browder, Michael Lewis found himself denied justice by the criminal justice system.
In 1997, Michael Lewis was convicted of murder and sentenced to life. Decades later, the impact of his imprisonment still exists.
Wise people have made powerful statements about how we reflect on our mistakes only after we have committed them. We take for granted how caught up we can be in the times. In the 1990s, violence was rising due to crack, and many politicians saw this as a chance to advance. President Bill Clinton’s 1994 Crime Bill fought crime with mass incarceration. Although we give him grief for it, black people too conformed to the ideas of our kids being super-predators. Politicians and authors alike embraced the idea of black males being inherently violent. Names like Robert “Yummy” Sandifer became embedded in our psyches to justify the need for more jails and police. Most major cities opted to imprison people rather than rehabilitating them.
Violence was at an all-time high. In the 90s, Atlanta was third in the nation for violent crime, falling behind Miami and New Orleans. Atlanta undertook a major renovation project and in 1996 hosted the Olympics. The following year Michael Lewis’ case rocked the city, drawing national attention because of the crime. Atlanta couldn’t afford to have its international image ruined. The cry for order affected everyone including many black professionals and politicians who ran on a tough-on-crime agenda.
Paul Howard, the first black district attorney in the state of Georgia, solidified his image when he led the charge against Michael Lewis, also known as Little B. In 1997, Little B, a thirteen-year-old orphan who grew up in Vine City in Atlanta, was charged with murder. His age, stature, and personal circumstances generated national attention as he became the system’s first victim. A newly passed state law, Senate Bill 440, allowed youth to be tried as adults. Lewis’s life sentence at thirteen invoked memories of George Stinney, the youngest person executed in U.S. history, but over time has become a distant memory. The only major work we have that describes this ordeal comes from former Black Panther leader and activist, Elaine Brown. Her book, The Condemnation of Little B, explains his life, his trial, and the attitude of the black elite who buried him in the system.
Atlanta natives know this area. Rappers like T.I. and Killer Mike and cult favorite movies like Snow On the Bluff, introduced the rest of the world to Vine City. Law enforcement knew it as the “Heroin Capital of the South”, and though gentrification has rooted some crime out, it doesn’t change the impact it’s had on countless lives. For years, this area of the city just blocks away from the Georgia Dome boasted the highest crime rate, and according to a 2017 New York Times article, also held the distinction of having “two of the poorest neighborhoods in the Southeastern United States.” According to the article, four out of ten people in that area live in poverty.
Atlanta, like many major cities, is a tale of two cities. Vine City is full of historical treasures from the historic Atlanta University Center to Paschal’s Restaurant and Atlanta millionaire Alonzo Herndon’s home. It is the home of some of Atlanta’s most known native sons including Dr Martin Luther King Jr, Julian Bond, Maynard Jackson and Reverend Ralph David Abernathy. It also was one of the many areas in Atlanta that became affected in the 60s by a lack of governmental support. Dr King, his wife, Reverend Abernathy, and his wife protested the urban decay taking place in 1966, but were unsuccessful in garnering the attention they needed to change it.
When asked about the conditions he witnessed, Dr King replied, “living conditions were the worst I had ever seen…I had no idea people were living in Atlanta in such conditions. This is a shame on the community.” The conditions that tenants faced led to the creation of the Vine City Project or Atlanta Project by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) to address landlord abuse, segregation, and evictions.
Over time, as populations increased and opportunities decreased, crime rose and soon the area became another forgotten corner of the city. “Vine City battled unemployment and crime with attempts to revitalize the neighborhoods. However, by the 1970s, the Vine City neighborhood had deteriorated into a corner of poverty.” The deterioration of neighborhoods like Vine City and housing projects like Techwood Homes coupled with the emergence of crack cocaine in the late 80s led to an influx of crime and drugs that made the city more dangerous than ever. This Atlanta is the Atlanta I know and grew up in. It’s the Atlanta that Elaine Brown got to know as well.
The Condemnation of Little B
Elaine Brown, the first chairwoman for the Black Panther Party, came to Atlanta in 1997 where her daughter, Ericka Abram, attended Spelman College. She heard about the case in the Atlanta paper and immediately saw the dichotomy of how the case was handled and the facts surrounding it, which led her to document it in her book, The Condemnation of Little B.
For instance, Darrell Woods, the man murdered in cold blood, stopped in the Bluff for a soda that night despite passing a slew of convenience stores across the city? The area’s reputation was well known as a spot for drugs. “Why, I went on, had Darrell Woods chosen this store, on this corner, particularly after dark? Griffin Street, in the heart of Bankhead, was known to visitors of the city and citizens alike as a dangerous place to visit in the daytime and contained all the tell-tale signs of danger we associate with urban ghettos.” Brown’s book was insightful because it did what few wanted to at the time, which was to ask the simple questions: What made people rush to convict this young man with circumstantial evidence? Why wasn’t anyone around to ensure they enrolled him in school, and why was the city allowing this drug haven to stay open? Most of all, Brown showed how Atlanta’s black elite group worked to railroad this boy, fearing the negative publicity his case would bring to the city.
Ultimately, Lewis was convicted of 1st-degree murder and sentenced as an adult to life imprisonment. In the time since his incarceration, Brown has worked tirelessly to fight for his freedom to no avail. Most people, even native Atlantans, forgot about the case. Georgia has moved on from its past, worked to rectify its past of mass incarceration. Recently, Brown spoke with Ohio State Senator Nina Turner on her podcast, Hello Somebody, about the case, and it made me realize just how many black people were casualties of America’s war on poor people. In the grand scheme of things it isn’t really about whether Michael committed the crime as much it as it is about how the system treated him. Before Kalief Browder’s case, there was Michael Lewis.