“Remember Emmett Till.”
Three simple words, and my father and mother repeated them to me several times in my life. They associated several ideas behind that simple phrase but the chief one was this: you are a black man living in a world hostile to you. Simply put, they reminded me that the world would pre-judge me and treat me unfairly. It would consider me hostile and a threat by virtue of my existence alone. In a group of my peers (I attended predominantly white schools), if all of them were causing trouble and the authorities arrived, those authorities would look to me first as the source of conflict. My peers could argue with police over tickets; I dare not if I valued my health and life. I would need to dress better, act better, live better than those around me.
My parents, unfortunately, were right. Time and experience have proved them true. Repeatedly.
Upon hearing the George Zimmerman verdict, I couldn’t help but hear those three words and see the parallels between Emmett Till and Trayvon Martin.
- Emmitt (14) and Trayvon (17) were both teenagers when they were killed.
- Both made typically teenager-like (impulsive, unwise) decisions in carrying out the activities that led to their death. In Emmitt’s case, he dared whistle at a white woman. In Trayvon’s case, he dared to stand his ground after feeling threatened.
- The killers in each case acted in accordance with the common social and legal bounds. In Emmitt’s case, the jury knew the perpetrators killed Emmitt, but felt the killing of a black boy deserved neither life in prison nor the death penalty. In Trayvon’s case, we have not heard from the jury (as of this writing) but their vote for acquittal was a vote against 2nd degree murder and manslaughter.
- Both Emmitt and Trayvon were accused of bringing on their own murders. In Emmitt’s case, one of the killers talked about “putting Emmitt in his place,” while in Trayvon’s case, some media commentators asserted that Trayvon’s manner of dress—a hoodie on a rainy day—was thug gear and made him seem suspicious.
- Both Emmitt and Trayvon’s killers were charged only after tremendous political and social pressure as well as national attention.
I have to admit: I was disappointment, frustrated, and ultimately unsurprised by the verdict. Based on what I could see of the case, Zimmerman’s actions were legal, but they weren’t good. Zimmerman has the right to carry a weapon and to use it if threatened. From a legal perspective, it doesn’t matter that he chose to follow Trayvon for over four mintues (and for those of you who think that’s no big deal, here’s a challenge for you: set a four minute timer on your phone and start walking; don’t stop until you hear the timer buzz and imagine that someone is following you the whole time—how might you react in that case?).
I also know that, when my son comes of age, I will teach my son the lesson my parents taught me with a simple, three-word phrase:
“Remember Trayvon Martin.”