Trayvon Martin may very well become this generation’s Emmett Till.
The February 26th shooting death of 17-year-old Martin by George Zimmerman — a self-appointed neighborhood watch captain in Sanford, Florida — has captured national attention and garnered universal outrage.
Martin was gunned down near his father’s home, wearing a hoodie and armed with little more than an iced tea and Skittles. The senseless killing of an innocent boy, and the failure of the police to arrest the professed gunman, is now a turning point in American history, and not just for African-Americans. And you’ll find this case at the intersection of racial violence, civil rights and criminal justice.
In August 1955, Emmit Till, 14, was lynched in Mississippi while visiting relatives, reportedly for flirting with a white woman. He was dragged at gunpoint, was beaten and shot, his eye gouged out, and his body thrown into the Tallahatchie River — weighted down by a 70-pound cotton gin. Till’s corpse was badly mutilated, and his mother insisted on an open casket funeral to show the horrific crimes committed against her son. And black mothers today, like Mamie Till, worry that their sons are targets. They fear the worst will happen; that someone will tell them their black boy is dead.
WATCH THIS ‘NIGHTLY NEWS’ REPORT ON BLACK MOMS’ FEAR FOR THEIR SONS:
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As Mrs. Till warned her son in Chicago before he went down South, “Be careful. If you have to get down on your knees and bow when a White person goes past, do it willingly.”
Till’s admitted abductors, two white men, were tried and acquitted of murdering and kidnapping. They later confessed to the crime in a magazine interview. In death, the Chicago teen was a flashpoint in the civil rights movement, placing the spotlight on the treatment of black people in Mississippi.
Fast forward 57 years, and Trayvon Martin, not unlike Till, could potentially have a large impact on the nation’s psyche. The racial implications of the Martin killing are clear. Although described by his father as “a Spanish-speaking minority with many black family members and friends,” Zimmerman is heard in the 911 call mumbling about “f**king coons.”
Trayvon Martin’s killing continues to expose the problems black men face, the low priority they are assigned as black victims, and the unfair treatment they face at the hands of the police and in the justice system.
Unfortunately, there have been too many Emmett Tills and Trayvon Martins, each a catalyst in his or her own right.
In 1963, four black girls were killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama by the Klu Klux Klan. The bombing sparked nationwide condemnation, and was a factor leading to the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Michael Griffith, 23, was hit by a car and killed in Howard Beach, NY in 1986. A mob of over 10 white teens had chased Griffith onto a highway after beating him and his friends.
Black teen Yusef Hawkins, was shot to death in 1989 after being attacked by a mob of white youths in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. The killing, which reflected New York’s racial tensions, galvanized the civil rights community and led to the defeat of Mayor Ed Koch in his reelection bid.
Amadou Diallo, 23, was killed by four plainclothes NYPD officers who believed his wallet was a gun. The officers admitting they fired 41 shots at the Guinean immigrant. The 1999 Diallo shooting galvanized the anti-police brutality movement in New York and around the country, leading to the over 1,700 arrests in mass protests.
Sean Bell, 23, was killed by undercover and plainclothes NYPD police officers in a hail of 50 bullets in 2006. The officers, who were acquitted of all charges, said they believed Bell and his friends were armed when they shot at their car.
On New Year’s Day in 2009, Oscar Grant, 23, was shot in the back in a San Francisco BART station, face- down and execution-style, as police officers stood over him. An officer was sentenced to two years for second degree manslaughter.
In September 2011, the state of Georgia executed Troy Davis, a black Savannah resident who was convicted of murdering a white police officer in 1989. The Troy Davis case received worldwide attention in light of evidence pointing to his innocence, including 7 of 9 eyewitnesses recanting or contradicting their testimony. Over 1 million people signed a petition to stop his execution. Civil rights and anti-death penalty activists view the execution of Troy Davis as a turning point in the use of the death penalty in the United States.
And now the spotlight is on the Sunshine State, where apparently it has become easier to purchase a gun and kill an innocent black man, but far more difficult for a black man to vote. In 2005, then-Florida Governor Jeb Bush signed the state’s “Stand Your Ground” law — the first in the nation and the reason why Zimmerman has not yet been arrested. The law eliminates old legal precedent by allowing citizens to use deadly force without retreating when they feel threatened outside the home. Critics maintain that the law, of the law, which exists in at 24 states, encourages people to shoot first and claim self-defense, and promotes a Wild West mentality and racial vigilantism.
Meanwhile, Florida Governor Rick Scott — who resigned as CEO of Columbia/HCA after paying $1.7 billion in criminal fines for overcharging the federal government in a Medicare fraud scheme — is violating the civil rights of black Floridians. His administration has asked a federal court to throw out a section of the Voting Rights Act, a hallmark of the civil rights movement which provides federal protection to voters of color in states with a history of racial discrimination.
Scott went back to the future by requiring nonviolent felons to wait five years after completing their sentences before applying to have their voting rights restored. In doing so, he resurrected Jim Crow-era felony disenfranchisement laws designed to keep freed slaves from voting.
And according to the U.S. Department of Justice, Florida’s harsh voting restrictions, which also include restrictions on early voting and third-party registration, amount to intentional discrimination.
The poor treatment of black people in Florida and elsewhere provides a backdrop for understanding the killing of Trayvon Martin. Nearly six decades ago, Emmett Till was murdered at a time when the lives of black boys were not highly regarded, and the rights of black Americans were under siege. Well, here we go again. The lessons people learned back then are the lessons we must once again learn today.
Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove