Focus on the details, and the cases seem very different. One was killed by virulent white racists, the other by a part-Hispanic neighborhood watchman who insists he faced a vicious attack. One was weighted down and dumped in a river; in the other case, police were called by the shooter himself.

Six decades and myriad details separate the deaths of Emmett Till and Trayvon Martin, two black teenagers felled by violence. Yet in the way America reacted to Martin’s death — and the issues that echoed afterward — his case has created a national racial conversation in the much same manner as the saga of Till, infamously murdered in 1955 for flirting with a white woman.

Plenty of people do not see the Martin case as about race at all. But for others who study America’s racial past and present, each killing is a defining moment for its era – a fraught microcosm of what we are, and what we are trying to become.

“Trayvon Martin is today’s race case,” says Christopher Darden, a prosecutor in the O.J. Simpson murder trial, another defining American moment. “I don’t know that anybody can really sit there and objectively look at the evidence. It arrives with so many different kinds of emotions.”

Just as the Till saga remains a searing archetype of the brutal segregation that gave rise to the civil rights movement, the Martin case captures the ambiguous meanings of race in America at a time when both the president and the lowest segments of society are black.

Emmett Till showed what needed to be done in 1955. Now, Trayvon Martin reveals to us the racial landscape of 2013.

“Trayvon Martin certainly is the Emmett Till of the hoodie generation,” says Michael Skolnik, a board member of The Trayvon Martin Foundation and president of GlobalGrind.com.

“This case represents so much for our country,” Skolnik says. “It represents issues of race, issues of police priorities for different communities. It represents the status of young black men in America.”

On a February night in 2012, Martin was returning to his father’s house from the store, unarmed, his hoodie up in a light rain. George Zimmerman, a volunteer neighborhood watchman, saw the 17-year-old and called police to report a “suspicious” person “up to no good.” Minutes later, a bullet from Zimmerman’s gun was in Martin’s chest.

Did Zimmerman think Martin was suspicious because he was black, or was he justly guarding his neighborhood? Did Martin attack Zimmerman? If Zimmerman acted based on race, is that manifestly unjust or just common sense?

Such questions, and the lineage of American historical events behind them, have turned Martin’s story into one that far transcends the facts of the case.

“I’ve been doing work around police brutality and racial hate crimes for over 20 years, but I’ve never seen one resonate with so many people like the Trayvon Martin situation,” says Kevin Powell, president of the advocacy group BK Nation and editor of “The Black Male Handbook: A Blueprint for Life.”

“He became this symbolic figure for how much has not changed in America in spite of a black man being in the White House,” Powell says.

To some, the Martin-Zimmerman case is about media distortion when it comes to race. Some view it through the prism of whether Florida’s “stand-your-ground” law is legitimate.

And for others, the case symbolizes that black people see racism when there is no evidence of it.

“I reject the idea that this happened specifically because of color,” says Mychal Massie, a columnist and former chairman of the black conservatives leadership group Project 21.

“I’m not saying that Martin deserved to be shot,” Massie says. “I’m also not saying he was a paragon of virtue. Indications are he was not singled out because he was black. He was singled out because he was there, Zimmerman was doing his job as a neighborhood watchperson, and he saw a stranger.”

Massie strenuously objects to any comparison between Till and Martin. Till, Massie says, died in “a different time.”

There certainly is no comparison between the killers, or the circumstances surrounding their actions: Two white men abducted the 14-year-old Till, pistol-whipped and shot him, then dumped him in a river with a weight barb-wired around his neck. Zimmerman, whose father is white and mother is from Peru, identifies himself as Hispanic. He says he fired in self-defense because he was being viciously beaten by Martin.

Yet Martin, like Till, died at a pivotal moment in U.S. racial history.

The Brown v. Board of Education case desegregating American schools had just begun the march toward equal rights, but Till’s death signaled that the hardest battles had yet to be fought. Likewise, Martin died when a black man was leading the country for the first time.

But Raynard Jackson, a black conservative commentator, says the fact of a black president didn’t stop a black kid minding his own business from being considered a criminal.

“It was based on a mindset of prejudice and superiority: ‘Who are you to walk in my neighborhood?'” Jackson asserts.

Reams of scientific evidence and real-life experiences suggest such profiling is widespread, and millions of people can feel its truth in their bones. But in the case of George Zimmerman, who exhibited no previous racist behavior of record, it’s still nothing but an assumption and almost impossible to prove.

That’s another defining feature of today’s racial challenges: They’re much more subtle than in 1955, and thus often harder to discuss or quantify.

Darden’s own judgment tells him that race was a factor in Zimmerman placing Martin under suspicion: “It had to be. Race is a factor, a point of fact that people consider when they evaluate someone.”

For Massie, the significance of the Martin case is simple: Black males commit a disproportionate percentage of crimes. “What it shows,” he says, “is the continued predilection for misbehavior by so many young urban people, regardless of color.”

“The tragedy of Trayvon Martin is that, if as many of us believe he initiated this assault, he paid the ultimate price for a bad decision,” Massie says.

Trayvon Martin: victim or aggressor? George Zimmerman: racist or neighborhood protector? As with America in the Emmett Till era, much of today’s race problem rests on the fact that America can’t reach even a semblance of consensus on the problem.

“I think white America has one way of viewing race, because of their experiences, and American people of color have a very different perspective, because of their experiences,” says Powell, the activist.

“If we are to truly have one America, then we’ve got to talk and listen to each other,” he says, “and to understand that Trayvon Martin murder is an American tragedy, not a black tragedy.”

(Photo: AP)

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14 thoughts on “In Trayvon Martin Case, History’s Ghosts Linger

  1. kailynn84 on said:

    @JanCorey it is thinking like yours that continues to hinder progress on rae relations in America. Had you took the time to do some research on the case you would know that Trayvon Martin was suspended from school because of evidence of marijuana and if memory serves correctly, marijuana is prescribed to millions of Americans with teminal illnesses. You also need to look at the various pictures of him online and he had no gold teeth. As far the fighting the defense attorney apoloigzed for releasing fabricated evidence. It just shows that you are one of the many who are ignorant to the situation at hand. As a mother of young black men I sympathize with his family as well as the countless numbers of mothers who have lost a child to senseless violence. I hope justice is served and George Zimmerman is punished for his crime but once again people like you will find anything negative to say about Trayvon Martin to defened George Zimmerman’s actions.

    • JanCorey on said:

      Trayvon had no prescription for marijuana, he was violating the Law as he smoked and assaulted Mr. Zimmerman. I only wish Mr. Zimmerman would have decapitated Trayvon to send an even stronger message for other gangstas not to attack the public.

      • kailynn84 on said:

        DId Trayvon M artin’s autopsy reveal that he was high on any sustane at the time of his murder? HELL NO because if it did the defense would be having a field day with the report. Mr. ZImmerman continue to fillow this young man after being told by a 911 operator that following him wasn’t necessary. Geore Zimmerman is the one that deserves to burn in hell for taking an innocent young man’s life!!!

      • JanCorey on said:

        Actually, kailynn84, his post mortem results did reveal that Trayvon was high on illegal substances at the time of his death. See how much clearer this case is when one only deals with the actual facts? (Personally, I am so glad Trayvon is now dead before he attacked another victim and beat them senseless needing medical care to sustain their own existence. Didn’t you see the pictures??? Now, it’s time to punish Trayvon’s parents for bringing that Trayvon-wanna-be-gangster into this community to victimize more victims. Trayvon never even completed school as normal white folks do. I am soooo very glad Trayvon is now dead. Gun-control is being able to hit your target. Thank you Mr. Zimmerman).

      • JanCorey on said:

        I agree with you that Trayvon deserved to die and I am so glad Trayvon is dead now. Praise the Lord!

      • JanCorey on said:

        Trayvon was high on illegal drugs, thank GOD he was eliminated. I am soooo very happy he’s dead now. Time to get those parents now and lock them both up for endangering our community with that drug-thug-wanna-be-gangsta-Trayvon.

    • JanCorey on said:

      Yes, kailynn84, I agree with you that Trayvon is very likely in Hell right now for his long list of crimes he did before Mr. Zimmerman was able to eliminate the threat from Trayvon. He’s there in Hell awaiting both of his parents who will reside with him there in the future. Good riddens to the Martins. Time to eliminate the threats. May I suggest that gun-magazines be emptied when used to defend oneself instead of the single-shot method by Mr. Zimmerman.

  2. jhuff on said:

    All other things being same if Trayvon had been killed by a black man would his case warrant daily coverage? (after all he was killed by a minority) But if the answer yes then what about the hundreds of Trayvons killed by other black men that same year, this year and next

  3. Are we really mentioning Emmet Till!? Please no – I don’t believe he was involved as Trayvon. This must be designed to stir up trouble.

  4. JanCorey on said:

    History’s ghost supports Trayvon’s actions against others like when Trayvon assaulted Mr. Zimmerman. That is why there are more blacks in prison than other races combined when one compares ethnic groups. Trayvon was high on illegal-drugs, kicked out of school multiple times, never could graduate, gold teeth, pictures of him with guns, dopehead, no future except a prison cell, fighting, beating others, I am just glad he was properly eliminated before Trayvon hurt anymore people.

    • Beverly Ward on said:

      JanCorey,

      Are you high right now, saying some crap like that. This is the reason why so many George Zimmerman get away with murder. I don’t care what he smoked, he was minding his own business, how would you like it if someone approach you just because you’re not white. I am sick and tired of people stereotypes of young black males. If he was a hoodlum in the ghetto and was walking in that neighbourhood George ass would be the one laying in the morgue.

      • JanCorey on said:

        If Mr. Zimmerman was found to be high on illegal substances at the time of the shooting, I would bet many people like you, Beverly Ward, would make an issue of it because it is an illegal act while Trayvon committed another illegal act in beating Mr. Zimmerman. That violation of the law, multiple counts, is what Trayvon earned all for himself and paid the consequence for his bad choices in life. Next step is to prosecute Trayvon’s parents for endangering our communities with that wanna-be-gangsta-Trayvon. I would vote for LWOP for each of Trayvon’s parents.

      • JanCorey on said:

        Sorry BW, but I have never been high in my lifetime unlike you. Try, instead, to deal only with the facts of this case and not what you want the facts to be in this case and you will surely seek Mr. Zimmerman’s upcoming acquittal soon in this case.

      • JanCorey on said:

        I kind of feel high, just like floating on a cloud now that Trayvon is now dead. I am just so thankful that Mr. Zimmerman eliminated the threat.

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