Sunday, March 25, 2012


Americans, who seem to like to tie up controversial historical periods in neat little packages, tend to call the years 1955 – 1968 the “Civil Rights Era.” Giving the struggle for racial equality a timeframe with boundaries allows many people to believe that some level of equality was achieved. The parents of the late Trayvon Martin would undoubtedly disagree.

On February 26, Trayvon Martin, 17, a Sanford, FL high school student, left his father’s gated community to walk to a nearby store. George Zimmerman, 28, a self-appointed neighborhood watch captain who was not affiliated with any official law enforcement organization, murdered Trayvon Martin because he thought the boy looked “suspicious.” You can safely substitute the word “black” for suspicious. Trayvon Martin was guilty of nothing more than walking to the store….and being black. His death fully supports the contention of many of us who lived through the “civil rights era” that racism in America is not only alive and well, but it is far more aggressive and dangerous than it was from 1955 to 1968.

There are many unanswered questions about this murder. First, why was an un-appointed “neighborhood watch captain” carrying a gun in a suburban neighborhood? Second, why has the murderer, George Zimmerman,
(left) not been arrested and imprisoned for first degree murder? Further, when a 911 operator asked Zimmerman if he was following Martin, Zimmerman said he was. The 911 operator clearly told Zimmerman not to continue pursuing Martin, but he did, until he murdered him. Why did Zimmerman continue his vigilante pursuit after law enforcement instructed him not to? Are we a nation of laws or does anyone now have the right to pursue anyone on the streets of America? Martin was unarmed and in possession of two items when police found his body – a package of candy and a can of iced tea. Zimmerman claims he killed Martin in self-defense. The police did not test the killer for drugs or alcohol, and took his word for it that it was self defense. He was not detained or arrested. Why?

The United States Department of Justice has strict guidelines for neighborhood watch personnel. First, they are to be trained for their work by law enforcement officials. But more importantly is this passage from the Neighborhood Watch Manual, published by the DOJ in 2010: “Patrol members should be trained by law enforcement. It should be emphasized to members that they do not possess police powers and they shall not carry weapons or pursue vehicles. They should also be cautioned to alert police or deputies when encountering strange activity. Members should never confront suspicious persons who could be armed and dangerous.” There is no disputing the facts that George Zimmerman defied these rules by carrying a gun and by confronting Trayvon Martin. So, again, why is he not in jail charged with first degree murder?

Similar incidents happened during the defined Civil Rights Era. In 1955, Emmett Till, (below, right, with his mother, Mamie Till Mobley) a black 14-year-old boy, was beaten, his eye gouged out and murdered by white men in Mississippi when he was suspected of flirting with a white woman.
Till’s death touched off not just a national outpouring of rage, but one that became international in scope. Some say it was the true beginning of the Civil Rights Movement. His killers were brought to trial, but allowed to maintain their freedom. Was it karmic that both later died of cancer? You will have to decide that for yourself.

Fast forward to this week: Deryl Dedmon, a white teenager pleaded guilty to murder and a hate crime for running over a black man with his pickup truck. The victim, James Craig Anderson, 47, was mercilessly beaten before Dedmon deliberately drove over his body. Mississippi prosecutors said Dedmon and others had targeted blacks for harassment before, usually homeless or drunk people who weren't likely to report it to police. Dedmon, 19, was sentenced to two life sentences. In handing down the sentence, Hinds County Circuit Judge Jeff Weill Sr. brought up 1964 murders of three civil rights workers who were murdered and buried in an earthen dam in a rural area that became known as "Mississippi Burning."

“All the hard work we have done to move our state forward from that earthen dam in Neshoba County to here has been stained by you,” Weill said . “A stain that will take years to fade.”

In truth, it will not fade at all, just as the brutal murder of Emmett Till still stains our national consciousness. However, unlike Anderson’s murder, the murder of Trayvon Martin has the potential to incite the same national (and perhaps international) rage that followed Till’s murder. This week, the FBI and representatives of the DOJ visited Martin’s parents,(above, left) Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, in an investigative attempt to determine if Federal charges will be used on George Martin. They will no doubt ponder this question: Were Trayvon Martin’s civil rights denied when he was not allowed to innocently walk down a suburban street toward his father’s home? While the answer is obvious, there are laws in place that must be followed to launch a Federal case.

The national outrage has already begun. President Obama said this about Martin’s murder: "If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon. I think [Trayvon's parents] are right to expect that all of us as Americans are going to take this with the seriousness it deserves, and we are going to get to the bottom of exactly what happened." That sure sounds like Federal charges are imminent.

On March 21, thousands of people turned out for a “Thousand Hoodie March” in New York’s Union Square to protest Martin’s murder. They held up packages of skittles, cans of iced tea and carried signs that said things like, “They never stop and frisk old white guys like me.”
On Thursday, Rev. Al Sharpton joined Martin’s parents for a protest rally in Sanford, FL, where participants carried signs that said things like, “Please don’t kill my sons,” and “Walking while black is not a crime.” On the same day, the police chief “temporarily” stepped down in Sanford.

Trayvon Martin’s murder, with its racially divisive implications is not an isolated incident. In New York last month, an 18-year-old boy was murdered by a NYPD officer who suspected he was dealing drugs. The murder took place in the boy’s grandmother’s home. The boy was unarmed and did not resist the officer. The boy, Ramarley Graham, was the subject of an illegal search, since the officer did not have a warrant. Many New Yorkers claim the NYPD’s “Stop and frisk” program is based in racism. As usual, the numbers tell the story: In 2011, the publicly available stats show that a half million people were stopped under this program. Of those, 87 percent were black or Latino, and most of the program’s efforts were centered in poor, minority neighborhoods. More rallies are planned over the coming weeks in protest of Graham’s death, with the ongoing cry of “NYPD – KKK.”

Similarly, in New Orleans last week, a 20-year-old man was killed in his home by a NOPD officer who was executing a search warrant related to drug activity. The man, Wendall Allen,(right)
was black. The officer is white. Allen was unarmed. The New Orleans coroner later revealed Allen died from a single gunshot that penetrated his lungs, heart and aorta. He also revealed the gunshot did not occur at close range, meaning it is unlikely that there was a struggle with Allen before he was killed. There were five children, ranging in age from one to 14 in the house at the time of Allen’s murder.

To date, neither the DOJ nor FBI has been involved in the Allen or Graham murders. Why? How do they differ from the murder of Trayvon Martin? All were young black citizens, unarmed, not arrested for a crime and not aggressive toward their murderers.

There is a fire burning just below the surface of the American culture. It has been burning for a very long time. It is rooted in intolerance and the mistaken notion that somehow there are population segments in America that are inherently superior to other citizens. It is fueled by individuals who cannot control or alter their own intolerance of others; individuals like George Zimmerman, who committed murder and walks freely through the streets of America even today; individuals like conservative Fox TV pundit Sean Hannity, who even after being offered all the facts of Martin’s murder, said, “Isn’t it possible this was all just a horrible accident?”; individuals like wayward journalist Geraldo Rivera, who actually said that although Martin was an “innocent kid, I’ll bet you money that if he didn't have that hoodie on, that — that nutty neighborhood watch guy wouldn't have responded in that violent and aggressive way."

The true culprit here is pervasive racism. The lesson to take away from this is that there was no “Civil Rights Era.” You cannot bookend the mid-20th century effort to achieve racial equality and call it an “era.”
If bookends are important to Americans, then the civil rights era is neatly framed by murder – Emmett Till’s in 1955 and Dr. Martin Luther King’s in 1968. It is, instead, an ongoing struggle that is getting worse instead of better with time. If Trayvon Martin can be murdered in broad daylight by a private citizen carrying a gun in a suburban neighborhood, the struggle must be viewed in present tense, rather than historically. And that fire that burns just under the surface of America? It’s coming out in the open now, just as it did in 1955.

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