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  • Subject area(s): Marketing
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  • Published on: 14th September 2019
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In the early morning hours of June 13, 1994, bodies of Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ronald Goldman were discovered outside of her Brentwood home, stabbed to death in the night. Her neighbors asleep in their homes, entirely unaware of the carnage that had occurred in the night. The prime suspect of course, was Nicole's ex-husband, beloved football star, amateur actor, and pitchman O.J. Simpson. What soon followed this discovery was a murder investigation and trial so explosive and exhausting, that it is now referred to as the “Trial of the Century”. What made the trial so notorious was not just Simpson's status as an icon in American pop culture, nor the array of infamous characters involved, but rather the racial tension that seemed to bubble to the surface of American life in the trial's wake. Numerous black Americans argued for O.J.'s innocence, while the majority of white Americans argued for his guilt. The divide that presented itself was not new, nor was it one that had ever entirely disappeared; and in a modern context, the strain between white and black Americans present then is still strikingly relevant. The trial of O.J. Simpson since its conclusion has become about far more than finding justice for the victims, but about O.J. Simpson's complex relationship with his own race, what his trial meant to the black community, and how it laid bare America's racial divide.

O.J. Simpson was born Orenthal James Simpson in San Francisco, California on July 9, 1947. Simpson was one of the four children born to Eunice and Jimmy Lee Simpson. After his parents' divorce Simpson's mother became the primary caretaker of the children, and she eventually moved them to the predominantly black and “rugged” Potrero Hill projects of San Francisco (“O.J.”). It was during his youth that Simpson formed his keen sense of self-preservation, a trait that would later announce itself during the trial. Considered by many around him to be a problem child, around the age of thirteen he joined a gang known as the Persian Warriors, and often spent time getting into trouble with his friends and finding his way out of taking the blame (Tobias). However, despite his  mischievous nature, Simpson excelled at sports. In Potrero Hills during the era of widespread era of racial segregation in the United States, the opportunities available to low-income, black children were few and far between. As a result, most of the children from the district spent the majority of their time at the Potrero Hills Recreation Center, as the gym welcomed black citizens to use its facilities. It was at this gym, that O.J. Simpson would spend his most formative years as an athlete (Knapp). The beginning of Simpson's long and storied football career began officially at San Francisco's Galileo High School, where he played first as a tackle and then eventually as a fullback (“Simpson”). Despite his success on the field, his grades were poor and severely hindered him from receiving scholarship offers from any major universities (“O.J.”). It was only after his record-breaking turn for the City College of San Francisco's football team that he began to be heavily recruited, setting his sights on the football program at the University of Southern California (Schwartz). While with the USC Trojans, he broke team records for rushing yards, was given the title of All American in 1967, competed in the Rose Bowl twice, and won the highly coveted Heisman Trophy in 1968. ("Simpson").

At the University of Southern California, Simpson was just as much a marvel on the gridiron as he was off for being a prominent black figure on a white-dominated college campus. While various student-staged protests began appearing on college campuses across the country during the late 1960's, USC remained largely cushioned due to its largely white student body and location. The campus itself, confined from the nearby black-dominated neighborhood of Watts; where two years prior to Simpson's arrival at USC, the Watts riots occurred (Tobias). The riots themselves began after a black man was arrested for driving while intoxicated, which led to a physical confrontation with white LAPD officers and ballooned into a much larger overall conflict resulting in large amounts of property damage and human casualties (Demaria). The Watts riots were just one tragic result of the longstanding tensions between black citizens and the LAPD, an event that would find echoes of itself much later in the Rodney King verdict and riots of 1992. Los Angeles during the Civil Rights era was often believed to be a haven for black Americans, a place free of the overt racism of the deep south and the University of Southern California's campus reflected this belief. Meanwhile police were depicted in popular media of the time as being strict professionals and entirely indebted to the people they swore to protect and serve; completely ignoring the pervading culture of white supremacy and systemic racism within many police precincts. “Protect and serve” applied only to white members of society, while black men and women and other minorities were subjected to antagonization and brutality. Despite being black himself, Simpson effectively removed himself from all political conversations surrounding race during his college career and beyond. Simpson's image as the uninvolved black man during the era of the Civil Rights Movement sharply contrasted with the images of revolutionary leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lewis broadcasted to the American public (Tobias). During Simpson's career at USC, leading black Civil Rights figures even sought him, hoping to make him a poster child of the movement like Jim Brown and Muhammad Ali before him. However, when asked about the protest of the 1968 Olympics by black American athletes, he responded “I'm not too well enlightened on the situation […] I don't know exactly what they're trying to do.” When implored for an elaboration on his stance, he simply stated “I'm not black. I'm O.J.” (Nemetz). It was this attempt at transcending race that would emerge as a recurring theme frequently throughout O.J. Simpson's life.

Following his successful turn as a football star at USC, O.J. Simpson became the top draft choice for the Buffalo Bills in 1969. However, Simpson struggled initially, clashing with the head coach who insisted on him playing as a receiver, and struggling to blend with the largely white, blue-collar culture of Buffalo. It was the introduction of a new head coach and a legend creating two thousand yard season that led to a career rebirth and endeared him to the American people. Off the football field, Simpson also began building a career as a pitchman and actor, and as a result further reinforced his reputation as a charismatic, lovable public figure. He began acting in films and inked endorsement deals with brands such as RC Cola, Chevrolet, and most memorably Hertz (a car-rental company). In his most famous ad for Hertz, O.J. is seen sprinting through an unnamed airport working to overcome the various obstacles that appear in his way. On his journey, Simpson receives encouragement from multiple extras on the sidelines grinning and cheering “Go, O.J., go”. The advertising executives in charge of the ad believed that the image of a black man scrambling through an airport would be perceived as threatening by a white audience, and thus came the inclusion of the white extras providing affirmation and validation (Tobias). The commercial's setup directly mirrored America's view of O.J. Simpson, Simpson's own perception of himself, and his success as a public figure. White America loved O.J. Simpson, not just because of his athletic ability, but because he was black and specifically rejected his own blackness as a means of marketing himself to a white audience; and O.J. Simpson loved white Americans because they accepted him, and allowed him to succeed unlike his colleagues who unapologetically embraced their racial identities. As writer Ta Nehisi Coates once phrased it, O.J Simpson “sought to be post-racial in a world that was not” (Coates).

Although his career flourished onscreen and in Buffalo, following a string of injuries Simpson was traded by the Buffalo Bills to the 49ers in 1978. However, his time with the San Francisco 49ers was considerably brief, and he officially retired from the NFL in 1979 after eleven exceedingly successful years. He continued to build his acting resume and even accepted a position as a sportscaster for NBC's Monday Night Football program (“O.J.”) In 1985, he was officially inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and his star remained as bright as ever (“Simpson”). By all accounts Simpson also lived the life of a typical celebrity. He lived in an affluent Brentwood neighborhood, drove expensive foreign cars, and frequently rubbed elbows with the likes of movie stars and millionaires including Robert Kardashian, who would become a key figure in his eventual murder trial (Janofksy). Simpson had managed to gain crossover success and all of the trappings of fame in a way that few black athletes and public figures could have ever hoped for, and he was incredibly aware of this fact.

In the year 1977, Nicole Brown was eighteen years old when she met O.J. Simpson while waitressing at The Daisy, an upscale nightclub in Beverly Hills. Simpson was immediately taken with the young woman, despite still being married to his high school sweetheart Marguerite Whitley with whom he had three children. The two soon divorced, and Brown and Simpson began dating. What followed was described by many close to them as a whirlwind romance marked by moments of intense passion and turmoil. Within mere months of dating, the two began living together; Nicole dropping her studies at Simpson's request (Hubler). On February 2 1985, seven years after their first meeting, the two were married beneath a tent at the Brentwood mansion they shared — Nicole pregnant with the first of their two children (Janofsky).  

Friends often described them as dazzling, saying they made a stunning pair and by all accounts appeared to have the “perfect life” (Hubler), often throwing lavish star-studded parties at their home and making public appearances together at industry events (Ferrell). However, they fought frequently, constantly on the verge of ending the relationship. As time passed, the more violent characteristics of their relationship came to light. Nicole frequently confronted her husband, his extramarital affairs being a large catalyst to their fights, amongst other issues. Eventually these confrontations escalated to physical violence on multiple occasions. One such incident occurred on New Year's Day 1989. After being called to the Simpson residence at three o'clock in the morning, officers on the scene at their home at Rockingham found a battered Nicole shouting “He's going to kill me”. Following the disturbing incident, O.J. was given the charge of spousal battery but in the end was just fined seven hundred dollars after pleading no contest (Ferrell).

In 1992, Nicole Brown Simpson filed for divorce from her husband citing irreconcilable differences, and relocated to a condominium a mere five minutes from his home. For a time after separation, Nicole appeared to prosper and gain a sense of independence, and the former spouses remained close frequently spotted spending time with their children (Huber). But the two made attempts at reconciliation in the years following their split that would ultimately prove to be futile; and in the months prior to Nicole's death local police were called on numerous occasions to settle disputes between the two (Ferrell). Despite the toxic and violent nature of their relationship, Nicole represented something much deeper about his perception of himself. Nicole, a white woman, and their public life together was another reflection of the whitewashed, apolitical world O.J. Simpson had built for himself; a far cry from the impoverished, predominately black Potero Hill projects of San Francisco. Through his marriage to Nicole and his successful transition into celebrity, Simpson believed that he had overcome the weight of his own race, a goal he had been trying to accomplish his whole life; from Potrero Hills, to the “white exclusivity” of University of Southern California's campus, and to his career as a professional football player. Race was merely another problem for O.J. Simpson to tackle, until it became his defense team's weapon of choice in the courtroom (Tobias).

Following the discovery of the lifeless bodies of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman, O.J. Simpson was immediately sought for questioning as a potential witness to the slayings. The night of the murders, Simpson had taken a red-eye out of Los Angeles to Chicago to attend an event held by Hertz and flew home upon receiving the news. Simpson and his lawyer Howard Weitzman maintained his innocence, claiming he was at home at the time the murders occurred. Despite this claim, a blood soaked glove, blood stains, as well as other potential pieces of evidence found at Simpson's residence at Rockingham began pointing towards his involvement (Ferrell). On June 15, 1994, Simpson appointed the high-powered Robert Shapiro as the head of his defense team. On June 16, 1994 the funerals of the victims were held, hundreds of people attending both. Then on June 17, 1994 O.J. Simpson was formally charged with the murders, and was ordered to surrender himself to local authorities. When Simpson failed to meet the demands of the LAPD, he instead led law enforcement on a sixty mile chase across the highways of Los Angeles and Orange County in a white Ford Bronco. The chase and Simpson's inevitable surrender finally culminated in Simpson's arrest. Soon after began a trial that lasted nearly nine months and the unearthing of revelations about race relations in the United States

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