From Emmett to Trayvon

Display_with_Racist_Quote_from_Murderer_of_Emmett_Till_-_National_Civil_Rights_Museum_-_Downtown_Memphis_-_Tennessee_-_USA

When I heard the George Zimmerman verdict, I sat in my living room in silence, watching the coverage for hours until it was all repeats of comments and clips that had run earlier. I was stunned, but mostly frozen in my dismay.

Most of my African-American friends who posted on social media were quick to say they were not surprised by the verdict. Intellectually, I was not either. But emotionally, I was horrified. NOT GUILTY…of anything… and yet an innocent black boy was dead. How could his killer be held not responsible?

I was more hopeful that reason and logic and even the disjointed evidence would prevail through bad lawyering. But it did not. Instead, our misguided obsession with guns combined with the lurking ghosts of racism that still surround us to create reasonable doubt about whether a man who stalked and followed an innocent African-American teen with a loaded gun was in fact criminally responsible for the boy’s death.

I have been surprised at how strongly this case has affected me. With this verdict, somehow, it feels like Trayvon Martin was killed all over again. When I first heard about this case 15 months ago on social media, I had hope for a trial and a conviction. Now, without that hope, I am in mourning for Trayvon Martin.

My pain for Trayvon, his parents, brother and family is palpable. The horrors they had to endure through the trial, the trauma that has surely torn into them individually and the pain of it all radiates to me.

Every black parent in America knows that he or she could be Tracy Martin or Sybrina Fulton. While we do not suffer as they do, we feel their pain when we look at our children today, when we imagine their futures and wonder if they will encounter someone who prejudges or profiles them based on race, and takes their life as a result. My heart trembles for my own 10-year-old black boy, and every other young black male in America.

For many of us African-American parents, this one jury of six women just sent a message that it is open season on our progeny. Shoot a black child walking freely down the street and there will be no penalty. If the shooter is not black, he can get away with it. And even worse, the verdict is just broadcasting a message that was created and sent by the state legislatures that passed Stand Your Ground laws, the National Rifle Association that promoted them, and the fearful citizens of some 24 states that supported their passage.

It is hard to believe we are still facing such an extreme illogical discrepancy between the facts and the verdict in 2013.  This is what leaves many of us stunned, hurt, and angry after the Zimmerman verdict.

For us, this case is not an isolated abstraction, but a continuum of centuries of life in America where black Americans have been seen as a threat, as chattel, and have been treated as such with extreme violence. And though the violence of slavery and Jim Crow are now distant, we have constant reminders that the dangers our ancestors faced continue to threaten us today. Rodney King, James Byrd, Trayvon Martin are just a few of the many modern-day reminders that it is still dangerous to be black in America, especially a black male.

It is not 1955. Modern Florida is not segregated Mississippi. But I feel like my grandmother must have felt when Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy, was brutally murdered for allegedly whistling at a white woman 58 years ago. At that time, my grandmother had one son who had made it out of segregated Virginia, only to face unfair biases as he worked to get an Ivy League college degree up north. Could he be so vilely killed over nothing, she must have wondered, worried.

But her other son, my uncle, was nine – just a year younger than her great-grandson is today.  That day, every black boy, including my uncle, became Emmett Till. All of their parents knew such a death was possible and might be the fate of their child in the near future.

So how do you face the fear of knowing that your child can be innocently walking on a public street, but be hunted down and killed because he is perceived as a threat? How do you teach and protect your children? My grandmother had to find a way, and so will I.

Back then, black Americans held their children closer, became more strict about their children’s behavior and issued stark warnings to young ones, in desperate hope that it might save them one day. It is one thing to know of the racial bias against your son. Like in 1955, it’s another thing to have an event like this tell you that your son could be next, that he might not make it to adulthood because of the sick history of race and violence in our country. For me, it is another thing to think that my little 10-year-old, who is always cold and wears hoodies in 80 degree weather, has a target on his heart, like Trayvon did, for the rest of his life.

The story of Travyon Martin and George Zimmerman is about race and it is not a new one. It has played out over and over for hundreds of years as innocent black men and boys have been feared, hated and ultimately targeted for an early death. America has a certain history with race that we cannot ignore. We can make comments that race is not the issue, but time and time again, we see the replay of the same story; the same scenario based on fear, mistrust and social differences belies a different truth. Race is still a guiding principle in America, one that chooses who lives and who dies, who is innocent and who is guilty.

Today, as we discussed the verdict, my 13-year-old daughter said it will get better. She hypothesized that George Zimmerman’s father probably grew up in segregation, learned the racism of that time and passed it on. But the further away we get from segregation, the more generations we have born in a freer America, the less these kinds of deaths will happen, she said. I hope she is right. I hope she, and her brothers, live to see that day.

For readers wringing their hands looking for some action to take in the wake of this verdict, please visit www.trayvonmartinfoundation.org, www.naacp.org and www.moveon.org.

Guest contributor Kristin Wells is a policy analyst in Washington, D.C. and an attorney at Patton Boggs.

Image via Wikimedia Commons/CC License/Adam Jones

  • Moms Demand Action for GunSense in America (MomsDemandAction.org) is another great nonprofit working on fixing the broken legislative system that enables bad gun laws like Stand Your Ground. This policy enabled a racist to provoke a fight and then kill his prey. Please support their efforts. There are 90+ local chapters, too. They welcome any supporters — not just Moms. What you can do to start becoming active: Learn who is working in your state legislature, who is representing YOU in your state capitol, and write to them about why you feel strongly about this case, and give them notice that you intend to vote on this issue — smart, sane gun laws — in every single election. (The “Find Your Elected Officials” tool on KnowWho.com is a great resource for quickly learning who represents you in all levels of government.) Let this verdict be a call to action.

  • Sam Wheat

    The case only became about race because of the media and so very many narrow minded American people who always need these things to be about race. Don’t you all realize your needles are stuck. Grow up people and please step into the modern day world.

    • Lezlie Bishop

      Sam Wheat, perhaps you can explain, then, how George Zimmerman decided that Trayvon Martin, who was walking in the rain, looked “suspicious.”

    • Libentia

      Sam Wheat, I don’t think you read this piece very closely. It addresses your comment directly. The “modern day world” you are experiencing, where justice and in fact all aspects of life are color-blind, is clearly different from the one the author experiences first-hand. You are entitled to your opinion, as is the author, but calling names is not helpful.

    • Leon Bynoe

      …and while you’re at it, Sam, please explain how Zimmerman was able to conclude that this boy was one of those “assholes who always get away” just by looking at him. How can anyone make that determination just by seeing a person walking down the street speaking on a cell phone?

  • Libentia

    Just for the record I think this is a beautifully-written and clear-eyed piece. Those of us who remember the stories of Emmett Till, James Byrd and others now feel dismay that Trayvon Martin’s name is added to that sad history.

    This feeling is not limited to African American parents. It is shared by those of us who are not African American but who have mixed-race or African American children, nephews/nieces, grandchildren. Those of us who live or work in integrated environments or seek greater integration. Those of us who welcome the first African American president and other national leaders, and support local candidates and businesses that are inclusive.

  • I am a Southern white woman but as I read this piece I felt as though I could have written it myself. My sentiments are exactly the same as the writer. Do I want to admit that too many people in the deep South are stuck in a mindset that refuses to acknowledge how we are shortchanging ourselves? No, but there IS racism and it needs to stop. When we don’t tap into the talents and intellects of ALL people, we are ALL hurt. Are there some bad African Americans? Yes. Are there some bad Caucasians? You bet. But as thinking Americans, we do NOT have the right to make judgments on others because of their race or ethnicity.

    George Zimmerman took the life of a human being after disregarding a direct order to stand down and wait for the authorities. He caused the death of that boy and it wouldn’t have happened if he done what he was told. He should be held accountable and I’m infuriated that he walks free today carrying the gun that was returned to him. Will he kill the next person he suspects? It’s possible. The law in Florida has a lot to answer for.

  • Joan Haskins

    Thank you for this. Your daughter’s comment gives me the hope I so sorely need right now. That we as a society, so sorely need.

  • Dora D

    Well said Kristin. What’s making me so angry and upset is that so many of my non-Black friends are offended by the notion that this verdict had anything to do with race — instead claiming that the jury followed the letter of the law since Travyon was at least partially at fault for fighting Zimmerman, and even if Zimmerman was “overly-zealous” in his pursuit of safety due to his racist beliefs – he’s just one person and his feelings don’t reflect society at large… WHAT?!?! It’s enough to make me want to put my head through a wall in frustration! People refuse to understand that “racism” isn’t just about people who walk around in White sheets claiming one race is superior to others. People who remain willfully blind about society’s inequalities are keeping us from recognizing and addressing the deeper issues that perpetuate racist beliefs. Instead, like the proverbial deaf, dumb and blind monkeys, they refuse to see evidence of society’s inequalities and claim anyone who disagrees with their viewpoint is just “stirring up hatred and resentment.” Like that old quote says, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

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