On an August morning in 1955, a 14-year-old Chicago student, visiting relatives in Mississippi, stopped in a small-town grocery store with a group of friends. While there, the visitor from Chicago was said to have whistled at the white woman working behind the counter, a profoundly dangerous thing to do in the world of Jim Crow America.
Within a few days, the woman’s husband and his brother came to the home where the young boy was visiting. They transported him to a barn, beat him and gouged out one of his eyes only to shoot him through the head and dispose of his body in a river, weighing it down with a 70-pound cotton gin fan.
Days later, his body was found, dragged from the river and returned to his mother in Chicago. She insisted that his body be shown publicly in the casket to demonstrate to the world the brutality and senselessness of the killing. It was a murder that riveted the nation and showcased to the world the horror of the ruthless violence that befalls African-American youth.
That 14-year-old’s name was Emmett Till.
Trayvon Martin is the Emmett Till of this generation.
The death of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old cheerful high school senior, is a crime so horrifying that it has galvanized, if belatedly, the attention of the entire country.
By now, his story is well known. The young man was walking through a gated community in a suburb of Orlando when he was approached by a neighborhood watch captain, George Zimmerman. Zimmerman called police saying that the young man looked suspicious and that he was Black.
The police told Zimmerman not to follow the young man, explaining that they were on their way. Nonetheless, Zimmerman approached Martin. There are 911 calls that carry the young man’s chilling and heartbreaking cries for help, followed by a gun shot.
Zimmerman said he shot the young man in self-defense; Martin was carrying a can of iced tea and bag of Skittles. Zimmerman, who was 100 pounds heavier than Martin, carried a 9 mm handgun.
Martin, a clean-cut young man described by teachers as an A and B student who majored in “cheerfulness,” is someone any American can relate to. He is our son, our nephew, our cousin, the kid we encounter in the church youth group, the young man on the college-bound tour. It seems fairly clear that he was murdered because he was a young Black man wearing a hoodie and because he didn’t fit the profile of the people who, in Zimmerman’s eyes, should be walking in a suburban gated community.
His death carries an additional, disturbing tragedy. Zimmerman has not been charged with any crime and there is no telling if he will be. Zimmerman’s claim of self-defense allows him to invoke Florida’s outrageous “Stand Your Ground” law, a piece of legislation championed by the National Rifle Association.
The law enables people to use deadly force against anyone whom they perceive as a threat. It is nothing short of a state-sanctioned license for people to engage in vigilante lawlessness.
Prosecutors in Florida say that the number of defendants who have used the self-defense claim has skyrocketed since the law was passed in 2005. It has been used by gang members against other gang members and by drug dealers in altercations with one another. In one 2001 case, a man was cleared of any wrongdoing after stabbing a man in the head with an ice pick during a road rage incident.
Florida is just one of 21 states that have enacted such absurd laws, meaning that the fate that befell Martin could occur anywhere at any moment.
And so, in the aftermath of this senseless atrocity, the reasonable people of this country should do all in their power to revoke or at lease defuse these laws. It will only prevent the deaths of other young African-American young men like Martin and serve as a fitting legacy for his tragic death.