Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx has ended a tradition among prosecutors in her office she believes might be based on racism and lynching.
For decades, to celebrate a prosecutor’s first guilty verdict from a jury, their necktie would be cut off and placed on an office wall along with a manila folder inked with the names of the prosecutor and defendant. Female attorneys would often cut off a piece of their pantyhose, as was the case with Foxx in 2009.
“I had my pantyhose cut when I did my first jury trial years ago. I never thought about where the tradition came from; had not really thought about it at all other than, ‘This is a rite of passage in the office,” she told the Chicago Sun-Times on Tuesday.
It wasn’t until after she was sworn in as state’s attorney in 2016 that she learned it might be based on a tradition in the South when lynchings of black men were common.
“To gather people together they would say, ‘We’re having a necktie party,’” Foxx said. “What would happen after someone is hung? People would take the neckties that people were wearing around their neck, turn the tie up and cut it, as though you’re cutting someone loose.”
It was a symbolic and celebratory gesture done by those who attended the hanging, she said.
Current and former assistant state’s attorneys of color brought to Foxx’s attention the tradition’s possible roots.
“It just never settled well with me that that was a possible origin story,” Foxx said, noting she took another look at the practice in recent weeks.
Foxx said her top deputy, Joe Magats, long assumed the tradition had roots in the military and was in place because various wings of the county’s main courthouse were run by attorneys known as “wing commanders.”
“The fact that there was a tradition that could have been rooted in this, in such an ugly, ugly history in our country, . . . I don’t know how I could, in this moment of reflection, shrug it off, or say ‘I can’t prove that’ or say ‘I don’t have enough,’” Foxx said.
Foxx made the call to end the tradition and remove signs of it, some dating back to the 1970s.
Foxx said while many responses have been positive, some attorneys thought she was off base in scratching a tradition they believe has no roots in racism and contributes to what makes their office unique.
“And I respect all of those opinions, but especially right now, in the conversations that we’re having as a nation, conversations that we’re having about heritage related to the Confederate flag, to monuments and the like, I appreciate the dialogue, but ultimately the question we have to answer for ourselves is, ‘Is this a tradition that we can stand behind knowing that this is the possible origin of its start?’ And we cannot. I cannot.”
“I cannot talk about systemic racism in the criminal justice system and all the work that we need to do to make sure that we’re fair and equitable and not also look at the impact that some of our traditions may have,” she said.
One former prosecutor with the state’s attorney’s office who wanted to remain anonymous rejected the idea that the tradition has racist undertones.
“Any implication that the tradition of clipping a young prosecutor’s tie or article of clothing had any racial connotation, let alone associated with lynching, is absolutely absurd and deeply offensive to current and former ASAs,” the former prosecutor said.
“Instead, it was a rite of passage meant to congratulate these ASAs and celebrate their first jury victory, which any real trial attorney will tell you is a significant accomplishment. This tradition was often followed by the senior attorney in the courtroom inviting the young ASA out for dinner to mark this noteworthy benchmark in the attorney’s career,” the former prosecutor said.
Foxx made the announcement Friday, and it was accompanied by an email sent to employees by Magats. Supervisors had already removed the ties and other clothing items.
“We will be allowing people, if they had something on a wall, to retrieve them for themselves, and they can take it home and do whatever. But, no, we didn’t toss them, they will be available for retrieval,” she said.
The blank spaces on walls will be filled with pictures of employees doing service work in the community, she said.
Asked what she planned to do with the memento of her first trial victory, Foxx said: “I haven’t thought about it, I actually haven’t thought about it.”
Foxx said the tradition amounted to an inappropriate use of trophies and celebration of an event that often carries with it great amounts of pain for both victims and defendants.
Foxx has solicited ideas from staff on better ways to honor employees for the work they do.
One idea, she said, is to give commemorative pins to attorneys, even if their first trials don’t result in a guilty verdict.