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.