Duke University and the Heroic Emile Zola of America

Lynch mobs are not a pretty sight.  But what is a pretty sight, even a beautiful one, is someone standing by the side of the road trying to call halt.

"As we came down the steps of the Palais de Justice, we found ourselves surrounded by the roaring crowd.  And then I saw the hero [Zola], more beautiful than the imagination of mankind ever pictured him[.] ... He was clumsy, shortsighted, and awkwardly carried his umbrella under his arm[.] ... But as he descended the steps one by one, in the midst of the roars of hatred, among the crowd that clamored for his death, he walked under the arch of uplifted clubs and canes like a king descending the palace stairs beneath an arch of naked swords unsheathed in his honor. ... It was a triumph of conscience, of truth, and of an individual."

–Mme. Severine during the Dreyfus affair

In 2006, we saw the thronging of another lynch mob, this time in Durham, North Carolina.  Three Duke University students were falsely accused of rape, in a case so flimsy that it should have been dismissed in five minutes.  But this was an era of politically correct minefields, and a media storm erupted.  The local paper, the Herald-Sun, eventually ran over 300 articles about what became known as the Duke Lacrosse Case, almost without exception assuming the guilt of the accused and stirring the city's readership to moral outrage.

The fires having been lit, the national press took up the theme.  Newsweek automatically branded the accused with adjectives like "raunchy," "strutting," "macho," and "entitled," with the noun "thugs" thrown in ("What Happened at Duke," May 1, 2006).  The magazine's cover for that issue featured mug shots of the arrested students, which could hardly have done more to infer their guilt and convict them in the mind of the public. 

The New York Times, which printed more than 100 pieces on the case, was later judged by some observers to have bent over backward to support the prosecution.  In one editorial, Selena Roberts wrote of "a group of privileged players of fine pedigree entangled in a night that threatens to belie their social standing as human beings" ("When Peer Pressure, Not Your Conscience, is Your Guide," March 31, 2006). 

Who can manage to stay upright when a storm is blowing?  On some days, network television coverage of the case exceeded that of the Iraq war. 

The result was predictable:

"It was like a gauntlet of people just swarmed  us everywhere ... all the trucks that you see outside with satellite dishes on our front yard and they were ... going after every single person they could ... and while we were walking [to the court] the Black Panthers started screaming out, "Justice will be done, rapist!"  They said, "You're going to get yours, rapist!" ... I mean, that was, I was terrified[.] ... [O]nce we got in the courtroom ... there were people yelling, there were people shouting all different things, and ... I felt I was going to be real safe because once you walk in a courtroom you know then you're safe ... and we sat down ... and there was a guy behind him me in the first row that kept leaning up[.] ... [H]e said, "You're a dead man walking!" ... Mr. Nifong [the prosecutor] sort of smirked to himself at the other table ... at that  point I think we understood where we were heading."

–Testimony at Nifong's Bar hearing, June 15, 2007

Even the clergy sang in harmony.  In the single church rally about the case, a packed congregation consisting of Durham's pastors, civic and civil rights leaders, patiently sat as keynote speakers from the New Black Panther Party denounced the accused, whites in general, and Jews.  The listeners held books in their hands written by Jews.  Portraits of Jews adorned their houses of worship.  Yet when speakers from an organization whose leaders have called for the death of Jews took the pulpit and proceeded to attack Jews, no one got up and walked out.  Not one preacher, white or black, bishop or humble deacon, then or later, ever raised his voice against the immorality of sacrificing the innocent to slake the thirst of a mob.

Clemenceau said of Zola, "There have always been people strong enough to resist the most powerful kings, to refuse to bow before them; there have been very few to resist the masses, to stand up alone against the misled multitude."

Steve Miller, then a student-columnist for the Duke University newspaper, stood up virtually alone against the 300 articles of the Herald-Sun.  He stood up against the satellite trucks parked bumper to bumper on Duke's campus.  He stood against the national networks:

[A]s a student body we have a moral duty to act with dignity and to demand fair and just treatment for our peers – no slander, no abuse, no prejudice tolerated. ("Persecution," August 28, 2006)

We live in a society where a single accusation can lead to ruin. ("Paranoia," September 25, 2006)

There are few greater evils a person can suffer than to face trial for a heinous crime he did not commit. ("Duke Lacrosse: A Call to Action," November 6, 2006)

The rest of the media pack never quite got around to admitting that.  The muffled apologies that came later were measured and qualified. 

Like Zola, Miller found himself trying to yell above a hurricane.  He may not have been the perfect embodiment of every virtue society seeks.  But at the required time, he was there.  And how proud should the rest of the media – who like to posture as the guardians of civic morality – be of their response?

It was his moment by default. 

We owe Steve Miller a debt and an acknowledgement.  Journalism owes him a debt.  Justice owes him a debt.  France was fortunate to have had a Zola.  For America – or at least certainly for Durham and Duke University – Miller was cast in the part and played it admirably.

I would not have agreed with everything Zola wrote about France, socialism, or religion.  But he will be forever honored for his stand against the inflamed masses.

I may not agree with everything Miller does with regard to future politics, but nothing should detract from the honor he is due for opposing mob justice during what would have been a blot on America's escutcheon, a Scottsboro II, imbued with all the passions and prejudices of the original version.

Thank you, Mr. Miller, for that.

Randolph Parrish is the author of The Duke Lacrosse Case: A Documentary History and Analysis of the Modern Scottsboro (2009).