The Ripple Effect of Race

by Terry Jackson Mitchell

On the hot summer night of August 20, 1980, I was jogging with three friends in Liberty Park in Salt Lake City, Utah. My friends Ted Fields, who was twenty years old, and David Martin, who was eighteen years old, were both black. My girlfriend Karma and I were fifteen years old and considered “white,” although my mother is a first generation Mexican American. On our way home from the park, we were shot at in the crosswalk on 900 South 500 East. At first I thought the shots I heard were leftover firecrackers from Pioneer Day, July 24. I assumed someone was throwing them at us because we were “race mixing.”
With the first shot, my arm, neck, and legs were bleeding and felt like they were on fire. I couldn’t figure out where the firecrackers were coming from. There were no cars on the street. I couldn’t see anyone near us. Dave said, “They got me.” We all laughed nervously and said, “Good one.” He fell. His blood was everywhere and the shots kept coming. We all tried to catch him and carry him to the end of the crosswalk. The blood was such a brilliant red color against the black pavement. Then Ted fell. Both of the men were on the ground, and I went into a state of shock. All I could hear was gunfire. All I could see was Ted’s face.
Ted kept telling me to run. I couldn’t hear him but I could see the words he was saying when I looked at his contorted face. It took a second for me to absorb what was really happening. “I can’t leave you here!” I said. The shots kept coming. I had the strongest telepathic message from Ted at that moment. “If the situation were reversed you would want me to run. RUN!”
I ran as fast as I could into a field of four to five foot tall grass facing the crosswalk. I thought I could hide from the sniper there, but something made me come to an abrupt stop in the middle of the field. I didn’t know it at the time but I was running right to the killer. I felt like I ran into an invisible wall and I stopped. I couldn’t move. I never saw him. Karma ran into the field and grabbed my arm. A brave woman came outside and ushered us into her basement apartment.
I kept hoping I was having a nightmare. “This isn’t real,” played on a loop over and over in my head. But it was real: by the end of the night, Ted and Dave were dead and I was covered in bullet fragments from bullets that passed through Dave and shattered on the pavement all over my petite, ninety-eight pound body.
We had been shot by Joseph Paul Franklin, a racist serial killer who killed at least twenty-two people in twelve different states. He was the man who shot and paralyzed Larry Flint for printing pictures of a black man and a white woman having sex in Hustler magazine. He was trying to start a race war all over the country.
He wasn’t captured until October that same year, so for a couple of months, I was blamed by the local media and my community for setting up the murders of my friends. It was a perfect example of victim blaming. My father was the president of a local motorcycle club and I was still alive. The survivors were pretty “white” girls and the murdered were college bound young “black men who were a credit to their race.”
For several days, the local newspapers printed my full name and address. They told my mother the public had a right to know. The other victims’ addresses weren’t given. The reporters made up stories when no one had any leads on the story.
I was a responsible 15 year-old, volunteer tutor, head cheerleader and honor roll student back then. I was also voted Miss Dream Girl at my school. But none of that was ever brought up to describe me in the misleading articles that painted me as white trash. I upset the court of public opinion by “race mixing” and they made an example of me in the worst ways.
I wasn’t allowed to go to the funerals. The victim’s families blamed my friend and me. The victims were dead and black. We were alive and white. We weren’t considered victims even when the shooter was charged for his crimes our names weren't on the paperwork as victims. When the killer was identified, the news never retracted the rumors they started. The rumors stuck to me like a scarlet letter. By October it was still too dangerous for me to live in Utah. There were cars full of people driving slowly by our house with guns pointed at our home. I called the police and asked for protection, but I was told, “Maybe you should have thought of that before you hung out with those niggers. We’re too busy. Call us if anything happens.”
It was like a bomb was thrown in my family and I believed it was my fault, (I am still overcoming that obstacle at the age of 49). I had to move out of state and into hiding for our safety. Our lives and relationships would NEVER be the same. Eventually I came back to Utah and married a black man. We were friends from junior high. He and his family embraced me like their own child and helped me heal. Initially, I was fearful of tempting fate and I knew that I would be judged harshly for “marrying outside my race.” But I loved him and I refused to let a racist society dictate whom I was allowed to love.
Thirty years later, on August 20, 2010, I tearfully left a crystal, a candle, and an unsigned note on the memorial plaque at Liberty Park on the anniversary of the murders. I was vulnerable that night. I came out on Facebook and told my friends what happened in 1980. Some “friends” chose to “unfriend” me. The next day someone saw the offerings on the plaque and called a reporter. But when the reporter got there, the note was gone. She wrote an article in the Salt Lake Tribune and pondered what the note said. A dear friend sent me the link to the article. It took several hours to get the courage to read the comments online. I felt fragile and didn’t know if it would be wise to expose my heart to be broken again. There were so many comments. When I finally looked, I was surprised to find that 95% of the comments were kind and gracious. I couldn’t believe it. I decided to respond and include the letter I left.
I had to create a user name to respond. I used the name OneLove and I thanked the commenters and reporter for their interest. I didn’t leave my name or number. But I was required to leave my email. What unfolded after that comment was miraculous. Within 15 minutes of the post, the reporter called. She wrote another article based on that interview. My only stipulation was that she use my maiden name.
The victim’s families got in touch with the reporter and asked for my contact information and we spoke for the first time. All was forgiven. Every day the reporter wrote a new article to update the community about what was happening. By the second or third article a woman from Utah Progressives said she would like to create a march in the park for Ted and Dave, which coincided with the 48-year anniversary of Martin Luther King’s, “I Have A Dream” speech. She asked if I would speak in Liberty Park on August 28, 2010, eight days since I left the offerings on the plaque. I accepted with the exception of using my maiden name rather than my married name.
Ted’s family flew to Utah from several states on a moment’s notice. Dave’s mother was there as well. When my father and his brothers rolled up on their Harleys wearing their colors, everyone tensed up, noticeably. My father got off his Harley and walked up to Ted’s father with open arms. When they embraced he let out a sound that was primal. It startled me. I turned to see my father crying in Ted’s father’s arms. I will never forget it as long as I live. “It wasn’t me. I wasn’t there.” Dad explained.
Dad brought his brothers there to protect the crowd from any racist antics from JPF’s admirers. When the printed program of the “March In The Park” was passed out, my full legal married name was included. At that point the tv news reporters gave out my name and the paper asked if they could as well.

I lost clients and business associates due to my “coming out.” I was worried about my children and their safety more than anything. I knew JPF said his greatest regret was leaving survivors. I was concerned someone would hurt my children to seek his approval.
After the dust settled, I decided to go back to college hoping to understand and heal racism in my community. My first semester, I took a race and ethnicity class as well as a design class. I learned a lot about the world and myself.
I learned that race is a social construct. It isn’t real. It was built to keep people of color and immigrants of “undesirable” countries from having access to democracy, wealth and education. Irish, Italian, Jewish and Germans people weren’t even considered white originally in America. Being white was a privilege then, just as it is now.
The first semester final project for my design class was to create a mask. I made a mask out of the newspaper articles mentioned above. I didn’t know it, but I would have to wear it and explain it to the students in the class on the last day of school. It was challenging to be that vulnerable in front of these people who thought they knew me. Trayvon Martin’s story was reaching a fever pitch at the time. I just happened to be wearing a hoodie that day. When I explained my story to the class, I had to put the mask on. I couldn’t wait to leave. A student followed me in the hall and asked if I would be willing to consider doing an art exhibit. Another student asked if I would lead and speak at the Trayvon Hoodie March. I accepted both invitations. At the end of the semester the students in the Race and Ethnicity class were surprised to know my story and came to the Hoodie March. I found the more that I allowed myself to be vulnerable, the more I healed my PTSD. Migraines, memory lapses and nightmares were less frequent as I became educated and created art. In June of 2013, I created an art exhibit with art created from the newspaper articles in 1980, 1981 and 2010. I read the articles from 1980 and 1981 for the first time when I created the pieces for the exhibit.
I was shocked and grateful my parents didn’t allow me to read the articles at the time they were printed. I really don’t think I would be here if I’d seen them back then. Suicide or drug addiction would have been a very likely outcome.
My life changed again, for the better, in a dramatic way. Many people attended the exhibit, including the Tribune’s editor and the former mayor from 1980. I met a man whose aunt gave Dave mouth to mouth resuscitation at the crosswalk. He said his aunt recently died and she was deeply affected by the crime. A woman who worked at the tennis shop in the park the night of the murders came to the exhibit and told me how the crime affected her. A woman who survived Auschwitz attended and told me her story and said that my art was very important.
Many times I was humbled to tears, listening to the stories of ripple effects from JPF’s crimes in Salt Lake City. For 30 years I ignored how the murders affected me. But I also ignored how it affected others in my village. I created an art piece for JPF. I read an article about his childhood abuse and neglect. One of the statements in the article was from his aunt said that she knew of the severe abuse he had endured and regretted not helping him. I thought of the ripple effect of his child abuse. What would his life be like if help had arrived when he was at the mercy of the merciless? How many lives would be different?
I realized he was to be imprisoned from the cradle to the grave. The child victim in me saw the child victim in him. I couldn’t hate him anymore and my heart felt full of Light. Joy replaced hate in the hole in my heart. He received two life sentences for murdering Ted and Dave. I received a life sentence as well. So did all the victim’s loved ones. The child abuse he endured had a ripple effect that proves no one is immune to the effects of a village turning their backs on the suffering of others.

I created an art piece for him and placed it in the gallery on the last day of the exhibit. Then I immediately drove to Millcreek Canyon. I meditated that his suffering be eased. Three weeks later JPF was given his execution date for the murder of a Jewish man. He was never given a death sentence for killing black people. He chose solitary confinement for 33 years.
I believed execution was the only way he could be released from the suffering of this lifetime. I still do.
About a month before the execution I was looking at my Facebook feed and found an article from Southern Poverty Law Center. It said, “Joseph Paul Franklin Denounces Racism and Asks His Victims for Forgiveness.” I lost time. My husband walked in the room and said, “What happened? Why are you crying?” I didn’t even know I was crying. I literally couldn’t talk. I couldn’t find the words. I knew this was an answer to my meditation.
I included a comment to the writer along with a picture of the piece of art I created. I told him to tell JPF I forgave him and to go in peace. I said that I always wondered why he didn’t kill me. Later an author, writing a book about JPF, commented on the same thread. He mentioned that JPF admitted he couldn’t get me in his scope because the light was in his eyes. Light? It was dark and there were no street-lights that would get in his eyes at that time. I couldn’t help but think Light energy protected me. What happens when we die? Where does our energy go? Will his energy bind with more hate and make it stronger? I think of my higher power as Light. My baby book said “Light” was my first word. I had dreams of Light that helped me get through the worst of what happened to me after the murders.
I wanted to heal JPF. I wanted to ask him to choose Light when he died. I thought I could give him some of my Light before he died so that he would choose Light and it would tip the scales of healing for everyone who was affected by his murderous rampage. My family was understandably fearful of me talking to him. At one point my sister said, “What if you give him your Light and you have none left for you?” “It doesn’t work that way. A candle does not lose its flame by lighting another candle”, I said. I sent him a couple of books to ease his fears while he was waiting in his cell next to the execution room, “Feelings Buried Alive Never Die” by Karol Truman and “The Great Divorce” by CS Lewis.
JPF wanted to talk to me in person. The week before and the day before the execution, we spoke for about 2 hours each time, over the phone. I tried to be the embodiment of compassion while I spoke to him. He told me about his life in and out of prison. Listening to him talk sometimes it felt like I was forever falling. I could smell the burning crosses when he described being inducted into the KKK. I could see and hear a thousand white hoods chanting their hate. There were moments of our conversation that I felt dizzy and nauseas from it and wanted to hang up. He told me that he was changed by meditating, reading about different religions. He even read the Koran and thought it was beautiful. He said he regretted his ignorance tremendously. He said he would do anything for me. I asked him for one favor. I asked him to choose Light when he died. I knew he believed in reincarnation, as I do.
I come from a family of sisters, no brothers. I have daughters, no sons. I have granddaughters, no grandsons. I told him, “every time I hold my grandchildren, I will love them the way you should have been loved. If you choose Light, come to me as my grandson and I will love and protect you the way you should have been from the beginning of this lifetime.”

He knew I had biracial children and he didn’t care. He kept thanking me and saying that no one was ever so kind to him. He said he loved me and thanked me over and over, many times. He was as happy as a child on Christmas morning.
I dodged the press and stayed busy as much as possible that day. I withdrew from everyone close to me while dealing with school tests, flashbacks and migraines.
The last time we spoke, I told JPF to come to me in spirit if he chose Light, so that I could finally sleep.
The day of the execution was challenging. He was given two stays of execution the day before he was scheduled to die. But in the early morning of November 20, 2013, I awoke to the news that he’d been executed.
That morning, I saw the interviews he gave on TV. I was grateful I didn’t speak to him in person. He looked like a broken, neglected animal that hadn’t been groomed in thirty-three years. It reduced me to tears all day. My greatest comfort came as I held my infant granddaughter close to my heart while she slept for hours and hours.
The following night, I told my husband, “I feel so light in my chest. Have I carried this heaviness in my heart since the murders? I didn’t even realize the weight of it until it was gone. I don’t know if it’s gone because I forgave him or because he is dead.”
I wonder if he chose Light?”
At that moment, a tsunami of what can only be described as intense love, joy and gratitude knocked me back into a chair behind me. It was a thousand times more powerful than the way it felt when my newborn children were handed to me at their births. I didn’t think anything could compare to that feeling. But there are no words to describe that moment adequately. I sat and quietly wept with the deepest feelings I’ve ever encountered in my life. I sat with my face in my hands until I could stand again. I felt so humbled and honored to be a part of this journey. My husband was speechless and didn’t know what to say or do, staring helplessly at me.

Finally, I stood up and said I was going to bed. I was tired to the bone. I fell asleep quickly. It felt like I was being watched. I could sense someone standing at the doorway watching me. I could feel him, like a parent looking at a sleeping child. He came towards me and traced my nose and my cheek with a fingertip as I slept and said, “Don’t think of it as a death. Think of it as a birth. Thank you. Thank you.”