“Acquitted.” The word struck me like ice water thrown on my face in the stifling heat of a summer day. I couldn’t believe what I’d heard. I felt as if the world stood still. Trayvon Martin’s world had certainly ceased spinning the night George Zimmerman killed him; now Mr. Zimmerman walked away from his criminal deed a free man.
Such white-on- black crime has been committed, and acquitted, before and it will happen again; less than forty-eight hours after Mr. Zimmerman walked out of the courtroom, a jury was being selected for a trial strikingly similar to his: A white man named John Spooner had shot to death a black 13-year old, Darius Simmons, in Milwaukee because Mr. Spooner thought, wrongly, that the teenager had stolen two guns from his home. Mr. Spooner’s lawyer claims it’s unfair to compare his case to Trayvon Martin’s; race was not a factor, he said.
Much has been written about the tragedy and the travesty of the Zimmerman verdict. Copious commentary has examined how our system of justice failed Trayvon Martin and his family both morally and legally; commentators have made the obvious connection to the Supreme Court’s recent ruling regarding the Voting Rights Act; others have connected the racism and gun violence dots.
“This case is about extraordinary inequality in the presumption of innocence and the application of justice,” wrote Charles Blow in The New York Times. “We are tired of hearing that race is a conversation for another day,” Ekow Yankah said in his eloquent analysis in the same paper. “Trayvon Martin is dead because he and other black boys and men like him are seen not as a person but a problem,” intoned the Rev. Dr. Raphael Warnock, senior pastor of an Atlanta church.
The commentary I read was insightful, important, moving and motivating. But what I was most struck by in the days following the verdict was the dignity with which Trayvon Martin’s family, friends, lawyers and supporters carried themselves. Their demeanor reminded me of Martin Luther King’s landmark “I Have a Dream” speech fifty years ago and of the wisdom of his words.
“We must face the tragic fact that the Negro is still not free,” Dr. King said, in front of the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963. Speaking of “the fierce urgency of now” he continued, “This sweltering summer of the Negro’s legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. … There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights.” Then he said, “We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence.” Calling for “soul force over physical force,” he sought a pledge that in going forward, the civil rights movement would be free of violence.
Dr. King’s words and his legacy are embodied, for me, in the dignity of the Martin family and other people of color as well as those who stand with them. Their graceful acceptance, despite the pain it bore, of the jury’s decision helped keep demonstrations in cities like New York, Atlanta and Chicago calm, not only in honor of Dr. King, but with respect for Trayvon Martin.
So, too, did the quiet resignation with which civil rights leaders realized, with enormous sadness, that the fight for civil and human rights goes on and on and on. Fifty years after Martin Luther King said, “Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice,” the battle for equality, justice and one’s rightful place in a nation quick to congratulate itself on social change continues, despite the setbacks that render one fatigued almost beyond tolerance. And yet the leaders take up their banners once more. The mantra of social justice is chanted again. The call for action continues anew. What courage, what fortitude that takes!
A few days after I heard that word – “acquitted” – I passed a black youth on the street. I wondered what it would be like to be his mother instead of the mother of my own white son. Did she worry whether he would make it home that night? Did she consider telling him that he shouldn’t run if the police approached him, or walk too slowly if he was being followed, or wear a hoodie? Did she want to say, “Don’t be brave, just get out of there” if trouble brewed.
I worried for him too, in a way I never had before. I felt (as much as possible) the insidious burden of blackness. I was connected to his mom as one mother, one woman, to another. I wondered if George Zimmerman, Mr. Spooner, their lawyers and loyal supporters would ever be capable of such empathy.
That’s when I experienced the utter fatigue that civil rights leaders must be feeling now.