BC Expert: OJ Simpson 20th Anniversary
Professor of History
(617) 552-8459 (o)
Jacobs is a political and cultural historian of the United States in the twentieth century, especially the period since World War II, and his research interests focus on the connection between U.S. domestic culture and foreign policy. He also has a strong interest in U.S. foreign policy, Vietnam, and U.S.-Asian relations. He teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in American military and diplomatic history, the Vietnam War, the Cold War, and America in the 1950s. Jacobs is currently writing a book called, Rogue Diplomats: The Proud Tradition of Disobedience in United States Foreign Policy. Past books include: The Universe Unraveling: American Foreign Policy in Cold War Laos and Cold War Mandarin: Ngo Dinh Diem and the Origins of the Vietnam War, 1950-1963.
He was an NFL Hall of Famer and the face of Hertz Rent-a-Car, but 20 years ago, O.J. Simpson was the suspected murderer in the deaths of his ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ron Goldman. The kind of crime that occurs every day in this country captivated the nation in a way few ever have.
“More interesting than the crime itself, I think, was the enormous anguish it seemed to cause sports fans—the notion that this man whom they followed, whom they idolized could be capable of this barbarity,” says Boston College History Professor Seth Jacobs, Ph.D., a scholar of 20th-century American culture. “That’s what really struck me. It also struck me as odd that we assume that just because someone has tremendous gifts in one area—he can catch a football or run down a field or knock somebody out in a boxing ring or put a ball in a hoop—that this person must necessarily be an exemplary human being in every other aspect of his life. That’s not usually the case. Sometimes it is but most of the time it isn’t. Nonetheless, many people had a great deal of difficulty believing that this sports icon could actually have done something like this.”
The brutal stabbings were followed five days later by the famous chase down the California freeway with O.J. Simpson in the back while friend and former football teammate Al Cowlings was in the driver’s seat of a white Ford Bronco.
“The impression I got from the people watching this—and I saw the live coverage on a big screen in a crowded restaurant—was they really wanted something violent to happen,” says Jacobs. “Not only were they waiting to see if there would be violence, but there was actually a kind of a lurid, sick, sensationalistic impulse, that they really wanted to see something violent happen, see somebody get hurt, somebody get killed, When one of the announcers said ‘O.J. Simpson has a gun to his own head,’ I heard this almost gasp of excitement around me from the people watching, as though they were viewing some kind of sporting event or some ‘Die Hard’ movie. It struck me as really twisted.”
What followed was the so-called Trial of the Century, which made celebrities out of the lawyers, the judge, even Simpson’s houseguest, Kato Kaelin. But few could have anticipated the verdict, or the visceral reaction.
“I think the biggest takeaway was the extraordinarily different response on the part of African Americans and white Americans to the case, to the verdict, to the entire proceeding—I can’t recall anything else in my life that pointed up a racial divide quite that startling,” says Jacobs. “It did demonstrate even in the 1990s, so many decades removed from the start of the modern civil rights movements, that this divide still did exist. I’ve never seen an event that laid bare that difference as explicitly as this case did.”
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