All that said, I'm not buying the goods that Wright Thompson is selling at all:
1. The piece does a little to acknowledge that Atlanta is far more progressive on racial issues than the rest of the South, but this point really needs to come through harder. In the 1950s, Atlanta was roughly the same size as Little Rock and Birmingham. How did this city grow to 4.5 million residents? How did this city become a home to numerous huge multinational corporations like Home Depot, UPS, Coke, and Delta? How did this city get teams in the three major professional sports in the second half of the 60s, not to mention the Olympics in 1996? There are a variety of explanations, but as compared to Birmingham and Little Rock, one factor is that we didn't have Orval Faubus or Bull Connor. Atlanta always had a more moderate city government that ameliorated the worst aspects of Jim Crow. As a result, the city avoided the pariah status that much of the rest of the South gained when images of fire hoses and police dogs were beamed into living rooms in the rest of the country in the 50s and 60s. Atlanta's mayors have been African-American since 1974. The district attorney in Atlanta is African-American, as is the chief of police. These seem like fairly relevant facts to me in describing the question of race in Atlanta.
The article, to paint a more lurid picture of racism in Atlanta, does a little bait and switch by devoting a lot of attention to the Monroe lynchings. Monroe is 45 miles outside of the city. I doubt that many Atlantans would dispute the notion that there is a lot of prejudice in rural Georgia, just as there is plenty of prejudice in rural Michigan (Michigan Militia, anyone?) or rural Idaho (death threats to Ian Johnson, anyone?). I don't think there's a real connection between what happened in Monroe and what goes on in Atlanta, but the article subtly implies that they are connected, as if Monroe is nestled on the edge of the perimeter.
2. One historical aspect that the article totally misses is the fact that the federal government, which is the entity prosecuting Vick, was a major ally for the civil rights movement in the 50s and 60s. African-Americans may have some legitimate historical grievances with the FBI (especially the Hoover FBI and its treatment of major civil rights leaders), but the FBI and the federal courts were one of the progressive elements in the South in the 50s and 60s. Often, federal judges were the only judges in the region who were willing to enforce laws to protect African-Americans. Similarly, the FBI often stepped in to investigate crimes when local law enforcement sat on their hands. The defensiveness on the part of many African-Americans regarding the federal charges against Vick is irrational for a number of reasons and one of those reasons is that the charges are being brought by a U.S. Attorney instead of a local D.A., as the latter position brings with it a lot of connotations from the 50s and 60s that the former does not.
[Update: I brought this point up to an African-American friend at lunch and he countered by saying that I'm not taking Katrina into account when considering how African-Americans view (or should view) the federal government. I thought that was a good point.]
3. Fundamentally, the biggest problem with the article is that it seeks to excuse an irrational response. I will freely concede that African-Americans are justified in being distrustful of law enforcement based on their historical experience, but can that be used to justify anything? If Dwayne Wade was caught on camera shooting a girlfriend and there were 27 witnesses to the crime, all of whom told consistent stories, would it be defensible to take Wade's side? No. Regardless of the role of collective historical experience in framing opinion, there has to be a rational consideration of the facts as presented.
In this instance, you have four witnesses and a co-defendant all saying that Vick was an active participant in a dog-fighting ring. At least one of those witnesses was apparently able to tell the FBI where there were dogs buried on the property, which enhances that witness's credibility. You have a property owned by Vick that has numerous, obvious signs that it was used for dog-fighting. You have an 18-page indictment that is notable because of the specificity of the allegations. Just about any rational observer would look at that evidence and say that it is more likely than not that Vick is guilty. It's fine to say that we are free to change our minds depending on the defenses asserted by Vick at trial, but right now, the case against him is compelling. Historical experience is important, but it shouldn't be an excuse to crowd out rational thought. In fact, one could make the case that there is a subtle paternalistic prejudice in arguing that African-Americans shouldn't be expected to view the charges against Vick in an analytical manner.
To his credit, Tyrone Brooks gets it:
State Rep. Tyrone Brooks (D-Atlanta), however, said [SCLC President Charles] Steele called him last week to talk about honoring Vick. Brooks, a lifetime SCLC member, said he counseled against it.
"I said, 'Stay on point, the convention is bigger than a particular man,' " Brooks said. "There are a lot of young people who need our help. Michael Vick is not one of them."
Vick had the money to pay for a top-notch legal defense, Brooks said, and he noted the quarterback hadn't been an SCLC supporter.
The veteran legislator said the SCLC should recruit Vick to assist in its programs after the convention but not become his public defender.
"What has he ever done except throw a football, run a football?" Brooks said. "I don't think he has done anything to deserve any special recognition."
As with any political organization, the credibility of civil rights organizations like the SCLC and the NAACP is critical. Some members of the civil rights movement already damaged their credibility in the Duke lacrosse case (which is what makes some of the criticism of a "rush to judgment" a little weak); the movement does not need to further hurt its credibility by jumping to the defense of Michael Vick, especially since (as Brooks points out) Vick does exactly lack for a competent legal defense. The time will come when the SCLC and NAACP will need to defend someone or something important and they don't want to be the boy who cried wolf because of Michael Vick.