Monday, August 17, 2020

Q&A with Matthew Van Meter

Matthew Van Meter is the author of the new book Deep Delta Justice: A Black Teen, His Lawyer, and Their Groundbreaking Battle for Civil Rights in the South. His work has appeared in The Atlantic and The New Republic, and he lives in Detroit.

Q: Why did you decide to write Deep Delta Justice?

A: I had been reporting on criminal justice stories and stumbled into this one. I was taking a law school class in criminal procedures and heard a version of the story. I thought it was fascinating, and no one had written a book about it.

It’s a good story and it also cuts into so many topics that were relevant five years ago and are relevant now, including policing and race in America.

Q: The Publishers Weekly review of the book says that “readers will be struck by how many of the issues involved—voter suppression, public funding for private schools, racial inequalities in the criminal justice system—are still being legislated today.” What do you see as the legacy of the 1968 Supreme Court case Duncan v. Louisiana?

A: Duncan v. Louisiana, the case, is about jury trials and has a legacy today. The context of the case has to do with the way segregation is implemented, and how power structures morphed in the ‘60s and ‘70s from de jure segregation to the system we have now.

The case laid the foundation for subsequent decisions about the right to a jury trial. It’s more obscure than it should be because there was no massive overnight change. It’s still at the basis of [later] cases: questions about if all states have to offer jury trials, what do we mean by a jury, how many people are on a jury. Duncan is the basis for all of them.

Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?

A: I’m very lucky in that both Gary Duncan and [attorney] Richard Sobol were alive and were all there. They had very clear memories. Richard passed away this spring; there was a lovely obituary in The New York Times. Gary is still alive—he’s a tugboat captain.

I was able to take the time to not just do in-depth interviews but to go back over and over.

I made 18 trips to New Orleans over the last five years, and spent hundreds of hours with Gary Duncan and his family, and other people in the parish, people who were part of the integrating class in the ‘60s, Black and White. Because everything was in open court, I got tens of thousands of pages of court documents.

I was surprised by all sorts of things. I grew up in the North and had never been to the Deep South, except the coast of Florida. I was able to embed myself for so long.

It stood out to me how little I understood about the way segregation and Jim Crow were enforced and implemented. I had thought of them as stasis, resisting change, when they were all about staying one step ahead of people who were trying to desegregate.

It changes the lesson from a legal perspective. It’s not about people coming in from the North trying to beat down a wall that had been there a long time. The wall was being built by people who wanted to keep segregation. They were keeping one step ahead of the civil rights movement and the federal government.

Q: You’re also involved in a Shakespeare in Prison program—can you say more about that?

A: It’s the Shakespeare in Prison program of the Detroit Public Theatre. Since 2012 we’ve worked at a women’s prison in Michigan with two dozen women. We read, discuss, and perform plays of Shakespeare for an audience of incarcerated women.

Shakespeare is a conduit for empowerment and personal growth, and connecting [the women] with humanity. It’s hard to come by in a place like that. It’s on hold now [with Covid]. We’re a small, scrappy nonprofit organization. It’s a nice counterbalance to the work of reporting and writing.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have a couple of ideas. I didn’t intend to write something else about the ‘60s and ‘70s, but I’m working on a story about a group of people in Detroit who ended up getting involved with warrantless wiretapping—it was a dry run for Watergate. I’m waiting for the archives at Wayne State and Michigan to open back up.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: It’s important for me to note that the book is a work of history. I don’t draw parallels to today.

At the same time, it’s really important for me that readers understand there was nothing in Gary Duncan’s case that came about as a direct result of Jim Crow. The case was not about breaking Jim Crow laws, it was a misdemeanor battery case. It was racially neutral.

Race is at the center of the case, but there’s nothing quaint about what happened to Gary Duncan. The same thing is happening to people all over this country.

There’s a documentary film being made based on the book, A Crime on the Bayou, by Nancy Buirski. I’m very grateful for her and for the project.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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