A Personal Story and an Overview of the ‘Rule of Law’

A Personal Story and an Overview of the ‘Rule of Law’

I begin with a story from my undergraduate days at St. Bonaventure University. During my senior year, our Men’s Basketball ‘67-’68 team went undefeated during the regular season. It was one of the best teams and seasons we ever had and included two fantastic Black players: senior Captain, Bill Butler and the great new sophomore, Bob Lanier who went on to a ‘Hall of Fame’, professional career in the NBA. We didn’t lose a game that season until we were defeated (upset!)  in the NCAA Regionals by the North Carolina Tar Heels on a “neutral” court in Raleigh, North Carolina, less than thirty miles from their campus.

During the regular season, our gym, located at the newly built athletic facility known as the Reilly Center in Alleghany, NY, literally rocked at every game with high expectations that were very much exceeded.

Before each game as the team was doing its pregame drills, ‘Wade in the Water’, as recorded by the famous Black jazz musician, Ramsey Lewis, played in the background. I did not realize it at the time, nor would have comprehended the significance anyway , that this song has roots going back to Harriet Tubman, the famous Black American, abolitionist, and social activist known for her Underground Railroad exploits to free slaves before the Civil War. Legend has it that the ‘Wade in the Water’ tune would be hummed whenever slave patrols were seen as a signal for the slaves to dive into the swampy water they would usually be going through in order to avoid detection. The irony of this song being played before our games will become clearer later as the story continues.

While this background music was winding down, you’d then hear the sound of a beating drum in a dirge-like mode outside of the gym. Then suddenly, six students dressed in trench coats and brown berets (the team was known then as the ‘Brown Indians’) would appear, slowly marching as pallbearers carrying a casket. They would place the casket at midcourt where our team mascots, the Indian Chief and his squaw, both in native garb, awaited.

The Brown Indian opened-up the casket and then pulled out a replica of the opposing team’s mascot, and he and his squaw would then proceed to dance, hoop, and holler while the crowd, including most of the student body, went wild. The mascot would be put back into the casket and the pallbearers took it back out, only to return and repeat the same ritual after the game when the opposing team was always defeated.

They then marched out of the gym with many frenzied students following and went to a nearby academic building which had a huge tree in front. It eventually became infamously known as the ‘HANGING TREE’ since the now vanquished mascots had all been lofted into its various branches and hung in effigy. This can be seen in the picture at the beginning of this post.

Both Bob Lanier and Bill Butler are in that picture and the yearbook that year captured some of these moments as well. Bob Lanier passed away in 2022 and in 2021, I reconnected with Bill Butler (‘Butts”) after over 50 years at another player’s burial at St. Bonaventure. We discussed many memories and of course the undefeated season came up.

We eventually got to the Hanging Tree and Bill told me that he had the picture seen above and I asked him for a copy.  I also asked what he thought about it, and interestingly he said, in his competitive spirit, “the more bodies the better”!!

Said another way, “the more wins the better”.  So, a very “interesting” comment and in discussion, we shared some very complex perspectives.

So, just think about that for a moment. This all happened in 1967-68 and was occurring within the backdrop of the ‘60s Civil Rights Era, and Marin Luther King’s assassination was a few weeks after the end of that basketball season.

Upon reflection not too long ago, the contrast with these realities combined with my naivete and obliviousness over the years, was startling to me!!

But this story goes deeper with some other “Butts” remembrances and stories.

As mentioned, Bill was a senior that famous season and we graduated together. He was also voted ‘The Ideal Bonaventure Student’, announced at our graduation, which was more than deserved. Everyone loved the guy and Bill epitomized the Franciscan spirit both on and off the court. He truly was a ‘gentle-man’ and a charismatic Ambassador for the school!

He was and remains a great friend. When my father died my junior year over the Thanksgiving holiday, Bill was in Rochester with another classmate and they both stopped over to my house to pay condolences. I never forgot that he took the time to do that.

After graduation, Bill then seemed to drop off the face of the earth. He didn’t return to St. Bonaventure for over 50 years, no reunions, nothing and everyone wondered why. As mentioned previously, I saw him at the 2021 funeral of one of his teammates and asked him why he hadn’t come back after all these years (note: he did return last year for our 55th class reunion).

Bill then told me his sad story that he gave me his permission to share. He was raised and educated as Catholic, and after his four years at Bonaventure, he decided that he wanted to become a priest in the Franciscan tradition.

Briefly, and suffice it to say, that whatever discussions which took place within the Franciscan community strongly signaled to Bill that he would have to dismiss his dream of becoming a Franciscan; so, Bill left in 1968 and didn’t return again to Bonaventure until 2022 … 54 years later!

What a waste and how sad and tragic is it that this happened to a person honored as “The Ideal Bonaventure Student”.  So, a hidden and unfortunate part of the Bonaventure History as well as an indictment of the times and in our country that a Black man was turned away from a vocation he wanted to pursue. And what a huge loss for Bill, the Franciscan Community, St. Bonaventure, and for his classmates who were denied his friendship at events and reunions over the years and never knew why.

 A final comment: In a very powerful and direct way, Bill not only gave me his permission to tell this story, but asked me in a ‘no uncertain manner’ to relay his message of the unfortunate, ever-enduring need for Racial Justice in this world and how all of us have a responsibility to join in the movement towards achieving that Racial Justice. I promised that I would tell his story as I have done a couple of times already including in this blog post.

Bill is now one of 26 Pastors at 1st Orlando Baptist Church in Florida serving 16,000 people of various ethnicities and cultures as Pastor of Pastoral Care- Hospital Visitations and Community Benevolence. Bill is also engaged in Chaplaincy at a local hospital; so, he did eventually fulfill his dream of ministerial service, but just not as a Catholic, Franciscan priest.

To return now to the story of the Hanging Tree, this most definitely characterizes the obliviousness within my own privilege … and not having my eyes, ears, mind, and heart open to what was really going on … until just a few years ago; talk about a blind spot!!! … and all of this is revealed in my memoir as my own Racial Justice transformation continues to evolve.

This retelling also provides a timely segue regarding the essential principle of the ‘Rule of Law’ within our democracy and how diametrically opposed it is to the concept of hanging or its horrible synonym, lynching.

Lynching is a gruesome and racially motivated act and involves murder by a mob without due process or rule of law. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, thousands of people—mainly Black Americans—were lynched by white mobs, often through hanging or torture. The Equal Justice Initiative estimates that approximately 4,400 African Americans were lynched between 1877 and 1950. Shockingly, those who participated in lynchings were sometimes celebrated and acted with impunity.

While lynching may not look the same as it did in the past, in a modern-day context it still occurs. Many regard the murders of black Americans like George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and James Byrd Jr. as modern-day lynchings. The Emmett Till Antilynching Act passed in 2022 aims to address this ongoing issue and hold perpetrators accountable for racial violence.

In summary, lynching is now considered a federal hate crime, and the Rule of Law seeks to ensure justice and prevent such acts from perpetuating racial terror.

For more information on the history of lynching, please see:

And a famous poem by author/poet Richard Wright…. …  and be prepared for its powerful and horrible imagery.

To elaborate further on the Rule of Law, this concept is a foundational principle within democratic systems, ensuring that governance is conducted according to established laws and procedures, rather than arbitrary decisions or the whims of individuals or authorities such as with lynchings. In a democracy, the Rule of Law serves several crucial functions:

  • Legal Framework: Democracies are characterized by the existence of a legal framework that outlines the rights and responsibilities of citizens, as well as the powers and limitations of government institutions. This framework typically includes constitutions, statutes, regulations, and judicial decisions that provide a basis for governance and the resolution of disputes.
  • Equality Before the Law: The Rule of Law mandates that all individuals, regardless of their status, wealth, or power, are subject to the same laws and are entitled to equal protection under those laws. This principle ensures that justice is administered impartially and that no one is above the law… including former Presidents!
  • Due Process: Democracies uphold the principle of due process, which guarantees that individuals are entitled to fair and transparent legal procedures when accused of a crime or involved in a legal dispute. This includes the right to a fair trial, legal representation, access to evidence, and the opportunity to present a defense.
  • Legal Certainty and Predictability: The Rule of Law fosters legal certainty and predictability by providing clear and consistent rules that govern behavior and regulate interactions within society. This allows individuals and businesses to plan and make decisions with confidence, knowing that their rights and obligations are clearly defined and enforceable.
  • Checks and Balances: In democratic systems, the Rule of Law is upheld through a system of checks and balances that distributes power among different branches of government—such as the legislative, executive, and judicial branches—and ensures that each branch operates within its prescribed authority. This prevents any one branch from exerting unchecked authority and helps safeguard against the abuse of power.
  • Judicial Independence: A key component of the Rule of Law is the independence of the judiciary, which ensures that courts and judges are free from undue influence or interference from the executive or legislative branches of government. Judicial independence is essential for upholding the Rule of Law and ensuring that legal decisions are based on impartial interpretation and application of the law.

Overall, the Rule of Law is critical to the functioning of democracy, providing a framework for governance that is based on accountability, fairness, and respect for individual rights. By upholding the Rule of Law, democratic societies promote stability, justice, and the protection of fundamental freedoms for all citizens.

Now in distinct contrast, during his tenure as President of the United States, Donald Trump faced well-deserved criticism and scrutiny regarding his approach to the Rule of Law. Some of the ways in which Trump was perceived to have undermined or demeaned the Rule of Law include:

  • Attacks on the Judiciary: Trump publicly criticized judges and judicial decisions that he disagreed with, often questioning their impartiality and legitimacy. This included disparaging remarks about judges, and even their family members, who ruled against his policies, such as his travel ban executive orders and his current antics violating “gag” orders in the many criminal and civil court cases he has been charged and indicted in.
  • Interference in Law Enforcement: Trump’s actions and statements raised concerns about potential political interference in law enforcement agencies, particularly in relation to the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). For example, he publicly criticized and pressured DOJ officials, including the Attorney General, over the handling of investigations and prosecutions. He has already indicated that this pattern of abusing the justice system will be ramped up even more if he is elected President again.
  • Pardons and Commutations: Trump’s use of his presidential pardon and commutation powers also drew criticism. Critics argued that some of his pardons appeared to be politically motivated or designed to benefit his allies. Additionally, Trump granted pardons to individuals convicted of serious crimes without following typical review processes, raising questions about fairness and accountability. He has already signaled that he will continue to abuse the pardon privilege if reelected President.
  • Obstruction of Justice Allegations: During his presidency, Trump faced allegations of obstruction of justice related to the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. While the investigation, led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, did not conclude that Trump had committed a crime, it outlined instances where Trump had attempted to interfere with the investigation, leading to concerns about his disrespect for the Rule of Law.
  • Refusal to Accept Election Results: Following the 2020 presidential election, Trump repeatedly made baseless claims of widespread voter fraud and refused to accept the results, despite numerous court rulings and investigations affirming the legitimacy of the election. His baseless claims led to the chilling January, 6, 2001 Insurrection and continues to undermine public trust in the current election campaign. The ‘peaceful transfer of power’, a fundamental principle of democratic governance, once again is threatened in his bid to be elected President again this year.

In an attempt at objectivity, it can be noted that opinions on Trump’s approach to the Rule of Law vary, with some supporters viewing his actions as relevant for challenging what they perceive as a biased establishment. Most others see his behavior as extremely detrimental to democratic norms and institutions going back over 200 years, including his increasing authoritarianism, anti-democracy rhetoric.

Every individual voter will have a chance and choice to determine their preference later this year on Election Day. Make sure to vote!

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