Whether because he was naïve or because he dared to defy the rules of racial caste, Emmett Till, a 14-year-old kid from Chicago visiting relatives
in Money, Miss., decided one day to “wolf whistle” at Carol Bryant, a white woman. She told her husband and the rest is history. Racists strangled Emmett with barbed wire, put his body in a barrel and set his remains alight. But the flames which horribly disfigured Emmett Till’s body ignited the Civil Rights Movement.
What galvanized black America in the 1950s was not the murder itself but that nothing was done. Could Trayvon Martin be our Emmett Till?
For most of the pundits and talking heads, the issue of Trayvon’s killing in Sanford is one of private violence, an act of individual bigotry. But the line between the violence of vigilantism and the violence of police is not so clear.
The whites who killed Emmett did so because they knew they could do it with impunity. White privilege in the South meant that no white jury would convict a white man of killing a black or fail to convict a black of killing a white. This was the pattern that expressed itself in 1923 in central Florida. A whole black settlement was wiped out when angry whites used rape as a pretext for looting and killing. That town was Rosewood, only 140 miles from Sanford. When George Zimmerman fired his weapon into Trayvon’s chest, what helped to enable him was that in Sanford and central Florida that pattern seems to continue.
In 2005, in Sanford, two security guards killed a black man they said tried to run them over. Black residents complained about a lackluster investigation. The security guards were acquitted.
Many blacks join in the chorus of the media that we live in a post-racial America. But we seem to continue to struggle with a criminal justice system in which justice is not blind but peeking underneath the blindfold at race.
The racial fear crystallized into a presumption of criminality that follows black men, like a shadow, wherever they go.
Zimmerman “knew” on sight Trayvon was “bad,” that “he’s up to no good, he’s on drugs or sump’in’.”
This presumption of criminality has a lot to do with why no evidence or objective justification is deemed necessary when a black man is shot.
While black men are presumed to be guilty, white men who shoot them are presumed to be innocent and reasonable, even when their explanations are at odds with the physical evidence at the scene.
When thousands of people gathered in Bayfront Park in downtown Miami recently, when they gathered in New York earlier for the “million hoodie march,” as member of Congress Bobby Rush of Illinois donned a hoodie and appeared on the floor of the House, when one law professor I know places a picture of Trayvon in place of his own profile, it is a sign that an entire community has had enough.
Trayvon’s death is a tragedy of inexpressible pain. But out of that pain and tragedy a new and unstoppable Civil Rights Movement is rising up.
Donald Jones is a professor of law at the University of Miami. He may be reached at DJones@Law.miami.edu
Photo: Donald Jones