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MAYNARD EATON: Pianist Christopher Washington and his Kokomo blues

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“We don’t have the same type of strong Black leadership that we used to have in this community.”

- Chris Washington

It’s been the talk of – if not the outrage of – Kokomo’s Black community. There has been a vehement reaction to the recent plea-deal sentencing of a Kokomo man, Joshua Cochran, 23, whom police say was high on marijuana when his vehicle struck and killed a 10-year-old Black girl in 2018, to a nine-year sentence – but no jail time – for the fatal crash and felony charge.

“This should be the talk of the town,” opines popular Kokomo pianist/organist Chris Washington. “There is a racial element to the decision that they made. There’s been a pattern of this, certainly in Kokomo.”

That controversial court ruling prompted the following Facebook post by Washington:

“This has greatly disturbed my spirit. I have no anger at this young boy … he made bad choices that resulted in an unthinkable tragedy, but he should be punished for those choices. My mind goes back to the young Black girl who killed a 37-year-old white man while driving high on weed … 20 years was her sentence. She deserved punishment also, but why such a great discrepancy between the two sentences? Unfortunately, the judicial system won’t be forced to answer that question. They’ve failed us again. I’ll reserve my anger for those responsible for that failure.”

That sentiment has been echoed and exasperated in barbershops, clubs, churches and kitchen tables by arguably a majority of activists, former inmates, young Blacks and fair-minded folks all across town since that regretful ruling was announced recently. Blacks account for about 11% of Kokomo’s population. This is racial injustice, they believe. The punishment should suit the crime, they say, and this was a mere slap on the wrist.

“You basically spat in the face of this girl’s family,” claims Washington, a 59-year-old father of two sons, one daughter and proud grandfather of eight. “You spat on her grave by letting him go without prison time. Minority lives don’t carry the same value. The justice system has always reacted to Black crime with anger and reacted to white crime against Blacks with compassion.”

Social media is a convenient platform for use as a bully pulpit, and Washington says his comments were merely to vent his pain, though others did react bitterly.

Ray Charles, or “Little Ray” as he was called, is a 66-year-old former Kokomo kid, Navy veteran and retired entrepreneur now living in a Dallas, Texas suburb. His sister was killed here when he was 12-years-young. Here is his piercing and provocative Facebook post:

“When a community doesn’t have or lacks leadership, these miscarriages of justice don’t matter to the oppressors. Why? Because no one with an activist mind seems to really care about equality. No one mentions or brings up the double standards in Kokomo until it’s too late and the damage done. They’ve [Kokomo’s elected politicians] watched and listened to Black Kokomo. In other words, they have a copy of Black Kokomo’s Play Book! Though they don’t come right out and say it, but why would they care more than the community that’s being mistreated than the community itself? I said this years ago, but the truth remains unchanged, the justice system appears to be consistent.”

Ray Charles is Chris Washington’s lifelong friend who was formerly his family’s paperboy. “I’ve never not known Ray Charles,” Washington reports. “He’s always had a strong personality, always very opinionated about the cause of racial injustice. He cares very deeply. He’s got very strong feelings about [Kokomo], and the lack of leadership in the Black community.”

“Kokomo’s Black preachers have turned Jesus into a business,” Charles curtly charges during our interview. “I think they are very complacent with Kokomo’s racial situation. The Black voices of Kokomo have no platform. The white man isn’t stopping you; you are stopping you. Nobody cuts your grass for free. We don’t even have a Black bank. Why?”

Washington is the first Black man I met and bonded with in Kokomo 18 months ago, and I most likely wouldn’t be writing this column now without his computer repair wizardry. But this was a Chris Washington racially riveting and revealing persona I had not yet met. I was staggered and incredibly impressed by his brazen “disturbed my spirit” Facebook comment; particularly for a top shelf church organist and revered jazz pianist for the past 44 years.

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“That little girl is the granddaughter of one of my closest friends,” he shares. “My first reaction was almost to cry because it hit so close to home. I put myself in that situation, how would I have felt if this [injustice] happened to me and my family. I had to say something because the system doesn’t see value in our lives. So, I took 15 minutes to vent.”

He continues, “In the Black community, racial injustice has been an ongoing topic [for decades], but in the last two years with the George Floyd verdict and those type of racial injustices nationwide, it’s come more to the forefront across cultures. This is a local case that once again showed us that the system is constantly failing Blacks and other minorities. It’s an ongoing story.”

Washington is biracial but was adopted and raised by 55- and 57-year-old Black parents who came to Kokomo in 1920. “I could tell you some stories that I listened to as a child that would make it very clear this stuff has been going on to a much greater degree throughout our history,” he bemoans. “No, it’s not as bad, but it has been happening for years. But there was no social media to share a video to, and there was no justice system to make it right.”

Washington’s half-brother is Jerry Paul, a popular Kokomo mover and shaker, who masterminded construction of the Women’s Legacy Memorial outside the Howard County Courthouse. So, I asked Chris, can he not see and appreciate both sides of the racial divide?

“I think I do but I think most Blacks share insights into the white community that are not reciprocated by whites,” he answers. “I’ve been with white people on an intimate level, all my life, every day, so I am much more familiar with them than they are with me. We operate in a white world.

“We all know that Blacks are punished more severely for the same crimes that whites commit,” he continues. “We’ve known that for years. We’ve also known that whites receive much lighter sentences for crimes then Black folks.”

Chris Washington is an accomplished artist, not an angry activist. He makes music, not racial rancor normally. Washington is a highly regarded jazz pianist and beloved Baptist church organist.

“I learned to be an artist,” he tells me. “I learned to be a musician, I learned to repair computers. I didn’t learn to be Black.”

Music has proved to be the focal point of Washington’s life. His parents pushed him to take piano lessons when he was 8 and to play for the Second Missionary Baptist Church Youth Choir at 14. “I love to create music,” he reveals.

At 17, he got involved with the Kokomo Community Choir, and the leader, Lewis Hall, who was the Minister of Music at Grace Memorial Church of God, became his musical mentor.

“When I heard this brother play the organ, I said, that’s what I want. I want to be able to play like that,” he recalls. “To be honest, I’m still searching for that ability because we call Lewis the ‘Godfather’ around here. Jazz musicians perform at the highest level technically. I can play a little jazz, but the church is what gave me the avenue to build my ability because I was allowed to play every Sunday. It gave me a chance to grow as a musician.” He now plays a dozen or more weddings and funerals annually, plus a wide range of other musical gigs. Washington is a premier professional pianist.

Given that Kokomo was once considered a hotbed for the KKK in the 1920s, what is Kokomo’s racial climate today, I ask him?

“We have a rich history of racism here,” Washington replies. “Of course, it’s not like that anymore. But there are still elements passed on from generation to generation. I’ve got white family, and I have a lot of white friends, so the overall atmosphere here I think is tolerable!”

Washington is gifted, articulate, savvy, skilled, personable, passionate and purposeful. Why are you still here in this city, I ask? “Kokomo is my home; every town has its pluses and minuses,” he answers. “I could say it was God’s plan. I wouldn’t change anything. I’ve been blessed.”

Maynard Eaton of Kokomo is an eight-time Emmy Award-winning news reporter and National Communications Director for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC).