From Till to Trayvon
In 1955, Emmett Till left Chicago to visit relatives in Money, Miss. during his summer vacation. He allegedly whistled at a White woman and was abducted from his family’s home and brutally murdered beyond recognition.
Fifty-seven years later, Trayvon Martin left the Miami area to visit his father in Sanford, Fla. during NBA All-Star Weekend. He was looked upon as suspicious in the gated Sanford neighborhood where his father’s fiancé lived and was pursued by self-appointed neighborhood watch leader George Zimmerman and killed, despite having committed no crime.
In both deaths, the alleged killers were exonerated by a jury that consisted of no African Americans. And both killings, and subsequent verdicts, were flashpoints in the struggle for equality and equal treatment for African Americans.
After Till’s death, African Americans united and protested non-violently, demanding a change to the status quo in America.
In 2013, we have another opportunity to unite and demand change, but the question is will we do it in a way that unites all, or will we do it in a way that gives ammunition for those who support the Zimmerman verdict?
Although most people protesting the Zimmerman verdict have done so peacefully, there have been scattered incidents of violence in cities like Los Angeles and Oakland.
While acting out in anger is understandable considering the ruling in the Zimmerman verdict, protesting inequality violently has never been in the DNA of African American leaders.
African American leaders have always initiated change through non-violence, faith and dignity.
While I have never been one to care about negative stereotypes of African Americans, those stereotypes were what killed Martin that fateful day in February 2012. Even though we are not the creators of those stereotypes, we have to be careful not to play into the hands of those who think Martin’s killing was justified.
Most, if not all, African American men have been the victim of racial profiling at sometime in their life. I can still vividly remember the officer’s name that stopped me on the street that I grew up on and questioned me about some home burglaries that he said occurred.
However, when I responded to him firmly, and intelligently, I was able to negate whatever stereotype that he had about me.
Rapper Too Short once rapped that African Americans had to be intelligent when they put bigots in their place, because when you act ignorantly you get treated that way.
Although the Zimmerman verdict ended the criminal trial against Martin’s killer, African American men are essentially on trial. Our future as first-class citizens depends on this trial.
Despite having an African American president in the White House, many African American men are still seen as a threat. To many, President Barack Obama is the exception and Black male criminals are the norm.
During the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King, Jr. believed that non-violent and peaceful protests were a way to get mainstream society to sympathize with our plight, and view the bigots as the problem. That philosophy led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
When Civil Rights activists peacefully marched through cities like Selma, Ala. and Montgomery, Ala. and were attacked with water hoses and vicious dogs, mainstream America began to empathize with their plight, and laws and public perception changed.
That same philosophy should be used today in the wake of the Zimmerman verdict. African Americans, Hispanics, White Americans and anyone else who disagrees with the Zimmerman verdict should use that anger to change laws (like Stand Your Ground laws) that contribute to unnecessary violence.
If we are seen as the instigators of violence during these protests, we will not be viewed as the victims but the perpetrators, and Martin’s death will be in vain.
We are all Trayvon Martin because we have all been in that situation as Black men and we owe it to him to show the world the intelligence, dignity and grace that all Black men possess.
Furthermore, we must be this vigilant when a Black male’s life is cut short by another Black man. It is time for us to value all Black male life and not just demand justice when the killer is of a lighter hue. If we do not, our efforts to get justice for people like Martin will not be taken seriously by our detractors.
When I was growing up, older generations of African Americans would tell me I had to be better than my White counterparts. That logic was true before after the death of Till, and it still reins true after the tragic death of Martin.
Simply, we have to be better than those with a different viewpoint of the Zimmerman verdict.
We can give them more ammunition to believe in those asinine stereotypes, or we can rise above the ignorance and show them what kind of strong and peaceful Black men Till and Martin could have grown up to become.