Howard Beach tragedy remembered

Former NYS Gov. David Paterson (right) with Jean Griffith-Sandiford.

The family of Michael Griffith and Cedric Sandifford plan their usual private memorial on Dec. 20. Annually, members take off from work, visit Brooklyn’s Evergreen Cemetery where their loved-ones are buried and accordingly reflect on the joys of the men who died because of the color of their skin.

Family members said this year “will be no different” but it marks the 25th anniversary of the heinous racial case, which occurred in Howard Beach and dominated the front pages of every newspaper in New York City a quarter of a century ago.

That year an international media pool comprised reporters from Europe, South America and Asia. A national press corps filled hotels throughout the long trial, which ended with convictions of white youths who chased Black men out of their neighborhood – because they were Black men.

That Dec. 19, 1986, 23-year-old Trinidad native Michael Griffith tried to escape the bat-wielding teenagers. He was sure the racist youths would beat him to a pulp if they caught up with him. So like his colleagues he tried to elude them by running through an unfamiliar community. The short of it, is that Griffith ran straight into traffic on the Belt Parkway and was killed.

Another, Guyana-born Cedric Sandifford was caught and beaten to near-death. He later died.

The case was renowned as the Howard Beach Murder case.

A special prosecutor was named to argue the case against the racists. Charles Hynes who is now the Brooklyn district attorney was that individual.

After the verdict, Oprah Winfrey took her show from Chicago to NYC to broadcast the issue of racial intolerance.

Needless to say, every juror was selected as if under a microscope.

At age 23, Nina Kraus was selected the foreman of the jurors.

At that time, New York had never elected a Black mayor or governor.

It is alleged that the case provided a stepping stone for the election of Mayor David N. Dinkins, the first Black mayor of NYC and later the selection of a Black governor named David Paterson, the latter accredited for enforcing a Hates Crime Bill in New York State.

“If there is any meaning we can derive from Michael’s death, it is this – it was truly an instrument for change – an instrument for major improvement of race relations in this city,” Hynes said recently.

The former special prosecutor of the case highlighted major advances, which transformed NYC since those turbulent years following the murders.

“Just two years after Michael’s murder, the city of New York elected David N. Dinkins, its first African-American mayor” Hynes said.

He also detailed how under Dinkins and his appointment of Raymond W. Kelly as his second police commissioner institution of an “aggressive recruitment program aimed at diversifying the NYPD” is now practiced.

“Today, not only is there more representation by people of color at all ranks including captains, deputy inspectors and chiefs than ever before in the history of New York City.”

Recently, the Griffith-Sandifford family memorialized the two men who sacrificed their lives that fateful and tragic December 1986. Perhaps, their tragic encounter exposed the hatred that lingered in the community.

Jean and her son Christopher invited individuals they wanted to remember Michael and Cedric.

With indiscriminate grace, they asked an attorney who defended the whites, the prosecutor, jurors, reporters, community activists, the first Black governor, a state legislator, members of the clergy and many New Yorkers who recalled the incident that changed racial intolerance in New York State.

In addition to memorializing the two brave men who ran for their lives, the Griffith-Sandifford family presented four awards to former governor David A. Paterson, Brooklyn District Attorney Charles J. Hynes, Assemblywoman Annette Robinson and yours truly.

I was honored to be acknowledged and even more grateful that I was among such a select and distinguished few.

There were lots of speeches and even more reuniting moments.

But former juror Nina Kraus summed it up best when she said “never forget the lessons of 25 years ago — no good ever comes from hatred.”

Catch you on the Inside!

Charles Joe Hynes, Brooklyn’s district attorney (left) with Jean Griffith-Sandifford.
Photos by Lem Peterkin
Photo by Lem Peterkin

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