The crucial thing to understand about Prince Jones is this: In a society that promised to reward talent and effort, he and his family had done more than hold up their side of the bargain. His mother, Mabel Jones, was raised poor but swore that she wasn't "going to live like this" all her life. She made good on the pledge, eventually winning a full scholarship to Louisiana State University en route to a career as a radiologist. Her son, Prince—a Howard graduate, a man of faith—did his part, too. But none of that was enough to protect him.
Reading Coates’s words transported me back to a conversation I had with my father, a lifelong civil-rights activist, in 1992. The topic, you might say, was my Prince Jones—Rodney King, who was savagely beaten by members of the Los Angeles police force. Even though their actions were captured on video, the officers were acquitted.
I had just graduated from law school, and I told my dad that the case made me doubt my career choice. I had gone to law school thinking that I would do something in the service of black people. But what was the point of a career learning to craft and apply rules if, just when you needed them, they turned out to be a sham?
My dad said something vaguely reassuring, but I was young and hard-headed, and his words just made things worse. So I drew from his own life to prove the pointlessness of struggle.
Back when he was about my age, my dad had been stopped by the L.A. police near the campus of the University of Southern California, where he was a student. They told him they wanted to question him about a robbery. Despite the fact that he had been sitting in a nearby campus library when the robbery took place, they refused his pleas to take the simple step of walking inside to confirm his presence with the librarian at the desk. My dad was outraged by their refusal, and their insistence that he come to the precinct for questioning. But, as he would later write in his memoir, “It was hopeless. They had the guns.”
They took him to a cell, and after he began mouthing off about his rights and the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence (he was studying political science, and I got my hard-headedness from somewhere), the police did what they did to black people—which is to say, whatever they wanted. They held him for days, beat him to the bone, and interrogated him without mercy. (“We're tired of you Chicago niggers coming out here to the coast and robbing and going back to Chicago.”) Eventually, when it became clear he wouldn’t confess to a crime he hadn’t committed, they dumped him on the street outside the precinct with no money and no way to get home.
This had happened to my dad in 1953. If Rodney King, almost 40 years later, could be beat down like this, on camera, and still nothing was done about it, surely my dad had to see that nothing had changed—and that nothing ever would.