Trayvon Martin may very well become this generation’s Emmett Till.
The February 26th shooting death of 17-year-old Martin by George Zimmerman — a self-appointed neighborhood watch captain in Sanford, Florida — has captured national attention and garnered universal outrage.
Martin was gunned down near his father’s home, wearing a hoodie and armed with little more than an iced tea and Skittles. The senseless killing of an innocent boy, and the failure of the police to arrest the professed gunman, is now a turning point in American history, and not just for African-Americans. And you’ll find this case at the intersection of racial violence, civil rights and criminal justice.
In August 1955, Emmit Till, 14, was lynched in Mississippi while visiting relatives, reportedly for flirting with a white woman. He was dragged at gunpoint, was beaten and shot, his eye gouged out, and his body thrown into the Tallahatchie River — weighted down by a 70-pound cotton gin. Till’s corpse was badly mutilated, and his mother insisted on an open casket funeral to show the horrific crimes committed against her son. And black mothers today, like Mamie Till, worry that their sons are targets. They fear the worst will happen; that someone will tell them their black boy is dead.
As Mrs. Till warned her son in Chicago before he went down South, “Be careful. If you have to get down on your knees and bow when a White person goes past, do it willingly.”
Till’s admitted abductors, two white men, were tried and acquitted of murdering and kidnapping. They later confessed to the crime in a magazine interview. In death, the Chicago teen was a flashpoint in the civil rights movement, placing the spotlight on the treatment of black people in Mississippi.
Fast forward 57 years, and Trayvon Martin, not unlike Till, could potentially have a large impact on the nation’s psyche. The racial implications of the Martin killing are clear. Although described by his father as “a Spanish-speaking minority with many black family members and friends,” Zimmerman is heard in the 911 call mumbling about “f**king coons.”
Trayvon Martin’s killing continues to expose the problems black men face, the low priority they are assigned as black victims, and the unfair treatment they face at the hands of the police and in the justice system.
Unfortunately, there have been too many Emmett Tills and Trayvon Martins, each a catalyst in his or her own right.