From Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin: A Legacy of Racially Motivated Murder in the U.S.

I join the masses in shock and horror at the not guilty verdict in the George Zimmerman trial. Zimmerman was on trial for the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin on the 12th February 2012 in Florida. Martin was a 17 year old black teenager and was unarmed when he was shot twice by Zimmerman. The shooting and trial has sparked international outrage and a race debate that continues to gain momentum. Soon after the shooting I was added to a Facebook group: “Bulletins from Post-Racial America” which defines itself as follows:

A wave of optimism and hope after the candidacy and election of President Barack Obama in 2008 has generated some assertions that America is now in a post-racial period of decreased racial tension and discrimination. However, the facts of ongoing racism and oppression in a nation built on slavery clearly indicate that America is not yet void of serious discrimination, racial violence, and deep prejudice. This group sets out to share daily (or almost daily) posts that offer evidence against and crucial discussion of the theory of a post-racial America. We will ask questions about the realities of race relations, state and police violence against people of color, and the economic realities of being a person of color in America. We take as our starting point, March 20, 2012, the twenty third day after the shooting of Trayvon Martin, a 17 year-old black boy from Sanford, Florida. Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman, walks free without arrest all this time later despite having shot and killed the young boy who was armed carried nothing but skittles, an iced tea, a hoody, and a “really suspicious” look.

Emmett Till: Alive and in his casket

As a student of American studies I have come into contact with many texts detailing racial discrimination and many instances of it in American history and in recent times. The term “post-racial” does not exist in my vocabulary. It seems to me that the not guilty verdict is symbolic of an ill in American society (and indeed the whole world!), a very visible wrong that has been engaged with, challenged, but not yet defeated: racism.

Following the Zimmerman verdict I thought about the case of Emmett Till, a black boy who was murdered in Money, Mississippi at the age of 14 in 1955. Originally from Chicago, he was visiting family when he was lynched by a group of white males for speaking to the white female proprietor of the local grocery store, Carolyn Bryant. Bryant’s husband Roy and his half-brother J. W. Milam arrived at Till’s great-uncle’s house where they took Till, transported him to a barn, beat him and gouged out one of his eyes, before shooting him through the head and disposing of his body in the Tallahatchie River, weighting it with a 70-pound (32 kg) cotton gin fan tied around his neck with barbed wire. His body was discovered and retrieved from the river three days later. Till’s mother chose to have an open casket and public service to show the country and the world the brutality of her son’s murder. His killers were acquitted by an all-white jury.

I am also reminded of a short story by Richard Wright that I studied during my undergraduate degree, “Big Boy Leaves Home” (1938). Big Boy, the black protagonist, and his group of friends decide to go swimming in a local pond. They are all naked and playing innocently in the water when a local white woman comes upon them. In disgust she calls for a nearby white man who shoots two of the four boys. Big Boy runs home and is quickly hidden by his family until he can escape the town the following morning. Over the course of the night Big Boy witnesses the lynching of one of his friends. The story ends with Big Boy being driven to safety the next morning as he reflects upon the murders of his teenage friends. The story highlights the volatile and bloodthirsty Jim Crow environment that black people had to endure in the early 20th century.

Bruce Springsteen’s “American Skin (41 Shots)” (2001) encapsulates the fear and anxiety of many parents in America right now who worry that their children are in danger of brutality and murder due to the colour of their skin. Springsteen sings:

41 shots, Lena gets her son ready for school
She says “On these streets, Charles
You’ve got to understand the rules
If an officer stops you, promise me you’ll always be polite
And that you’ll never ever run away
Promise Mama you’ll keep your hands in sight”

Well, is it a gun, is it a knife
Is it a wallet, this is your life
It ain’t no secret (it ain’t no secret)
No secret my friend
You can get killed just for living in your American skin.

The song is a criticises the prevalence of racial discrimination in the U.S. It directly references the New York City police fatal shooting (with 41 shots) of the unarmed Bronx resident Amadou Diallo in February 1999. The police suspected Diallo of matching the profile of a man wanted for rape. When he attempted to pull out his wallet they assumed he had a gun and opened fire killing him with 41 shots, 19 of which hit him. The officers were found not guilty of his murder. The words in the above verse of mother coaching her son to survive the inevitable discrimination that permeates the streets of America is deeply moving and emblematic of the poisonous nature of discrimination. Rather than being able to kiss her son goodbye and wish him a nice day, this woman must instead worry for his safety and provide him with the best advice possible to ensure his return home.

From the early 20th century to present, what has changed? Black men are still guilty until proven innocent. Mothers still worry whether or not their sons are going to return home alive. Killers are walking free under the assumption of self-defence, the assumption that they have the right and the necessity to defend with deathly force against black men and boys. The administrators of “Bulletins from Post-Racial America” are correct. We are not post-racial, not even close. We have not evolved, and boys like Emmet Till and Trayvon Martin will continue to be oppressed and shot at until justice  systems begin to acknowledge the value of their lives and the futility their deaths. Boys like the fictional Big Boy and Charles will continue to have their youths distorted and even destroyed by the unwarranted abuse and danger they face by going about innocent games and journeys to school. The Zimmerman acquittal is the latest shame in a long legacy racial discrimination.

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This entry was posted by americasstudies on Monday, July 15th, 2013 at 9:04 pm and is filed under America, Culture, Current Affairs, History, music, News . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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