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Emerson president says George Floyd’s killing ‘a legalized lynching,’ recalls being called racist slurs

"I have been pulled over driving while black more times than I can remember.”

M. Lee Pelton, president of Emerson College.
M. Lee Pelton, president of Emerson College.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff/file

In an exasperated and deeply personal letter to the Emerson College community on Monday, the school’s president described the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis as “a legalized lynching" that gave him occasion to reflect on his own painful experiences of racism.

M. Lee Pelton said he didn’t want to write an angry letter to students and faculty, but “I also didn’t want to write the kind of platitudinous letters that ordinarily appear after these kinds of killings.”

Pelton, 69, said he had watched “over and over” a cellphone video of Floyd pinned to the ground, “because I was mesmerized by the casualness with which the Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin murdered George Floyd. Chauvin dug his knee into his neck for almost nine minutes, even as Floyd repeatedly said, ‘I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.’ ”

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“As he called on his Mama before he took his last breath, Chauvin continued to talk, he looked as if he didn’t have a care in the world. He didn’t stop until Floyd was unresponsive.”

Pelton has been called the N-word in every city and state where he has lived, he said.

“I have been pulled over driving while black more times than I can remember,” he said. “I have been spit on by a white parking lot attendant. I was stopped 20 feet from my house by two white police officers in their cruiser, the searing heat of their spot lights on the back of my neck, guns drawn on either side of my car because I looked like a black man who was alleged to have stolen something from a convenience store.”

When Pelton lived on the West Coast, he said, he was pulled over by police twice in a single night for allegedly not using his turn signal a great enough distance before a stop sign.

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While Pelton was president of Willamette University in Salem, Ore., he said, “two teenage boys drove up on the sidewalk to block my path home because I looked like someone who was suspected of stealing from neighborhood homes. When I asked what that person looked like they described someone more than twenty years younger than me.”

Visiting relatives in Conway, Ark., in the 1970s, Pelton was forced to order food in a restaurant’s back alley because it didn’t serve Black diners.

“I was twenty years old,” Pelton said. “I was angry at the overt racism and at my cousins for enduring such indignities almost a decade after the passages of the two Civil Rights Acts of the mid-60’s.”

It was a raw emotional outpouring rare for a university president or leader in any field, but it was one of many from prominent Black Americans who in recent days have denounced the killings and the criminalization of people just trying to live their lives.

At a City Hall news conference Monday, Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins made a personal statement about the “lives that were stolen and people that were lynched and murdered.” Like Pelton, Rollins spoke of both anger and “exhaustion” as the story emerged of another Black man killed by a white man with a badge.

In Pelton’s letter, he recalled some in the long list of Black Americans whose deaths at the hands of police or vigilantes have made national headlines.

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“Do you remember Trayvon Martin or twelve-year old Tamir Rice or Sandra Bland or Philando Castile or Eric Garner or Freddie Gray or Botham Jean or Breonna Taylor?” he said. “Say their names. This is not new. All of them dead. Each of them invisible.”


Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.