Trayvon Martin: Not the First, Not the Last

Not Guilty. I was angered and sorrowed by the jury’s decision but not surprised. As a historian, I have dedicated my life to examining the events of the past with the hope of better understanding the present. Unfortunately, the United States of America has over 394 years and counting of institutionalized racism largely directed at people of African descent.

For example, a prominent 19th century physician named J. Marion Sims(known as the father of gynecology) developed several gynecological procedures by experimenting on slave women. He did this without giving the women any anesthesia. The Tuskegee Experiment saw over 600 black men from Macon County, Al become unwitting participants in a government sanctioned experiment on the untreated effects of syphilis on the human body(399 had syphilis and 201 did not). They were led to believe they were receiving treatment but were actually being given placebos. In exchange for their participation, they were given free medical exams, free meals, and burial insurance. The experiment, launched in 1932, was originally slated for six months but lasted for forty years. Although law suits were filed and settled, it wasn’t until May 16, 1997 that a formal apology on behalf of the nation was issued by Pres. William J. Clinton.

In 1945, a black man named Ebb Cade, a trucker, was being treated for injuries sustained in an accident(March 24, 1945). Without his consent, he was placed into a radiation experimentation program sponsored by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission(April 10,1945). He was injected with 0.29 microcuries of plutonium 239. To put that in perspective, that is roughly 41.2 times the amount of plutonium that the average person receives in a lifetime. The purpose of the experiment was to determine what the risks to man were for plutonium exposure. This is interesting because 4 months later the United States drops the Atomic Bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki(World War II) killing tens of thousands of Japanese citizens and unleashing deadly radiation in the process. Mr. Cade subsequently disappeared from the hospital and died a few years later.

In the early 1950s, the U.S. Army and CIA deliberately exposed Black Floridians to yellow fever and other diseases carried by mosquitoes. During the 1960s and 70s, a University of Mississippi researcher studied alleged “hyperactivity” in young black boys. This was done by invasive and sometimes paralyzing neurosurgery because he believed brain pathology to be the cause of their “hyperactivity”.

In 1955, young Emmett Till from Chicago went to Mississippi to visit family relatives. He made the mistake of whistling at a white woman and found himself beaten until he was unrecognizable, tortured, shot, and dumped in a river. His assailants were acquitted of all charges. They will admit to the killing after the trial in various interviews.

In 1931, nine black boys from Alabama, The Scottsboro boys, were charged with the rape of two white women. They endured several trials with poor legal representation and eight of the nine were charged and sentenced to death. After lengthy trials and appeals and an admission by one of the women that the boys did not touch either woman, charges were dropped against four. The other sentences ranged from 75 years to death. One was shot in prison, two escaped and were recaptured, and the oldest of the boys escaped parole and went into hiding. He was in hiding for 30 years and eventually won a pardon from Gov. George Wallace.

There was also the story of Fred Hampton. He was the Deputy Chairman of the Black Panther Party of Illinois and was only 21 years old when he was gunned down in his sleep by the Cook County(Chicago) police and the FBI. His bodyguard William O’Neal was a FBI COINTELPRO informant. While Hampton lay sleep in his bed next to his girlfriend, who was 8 months pregnant, law enforcement fired over 100 shots. Not a single shot hit his girlfriend. Police Officers fired a last shot into his body declaring, “He’s good and dead now”. Evidence proved the panthers fired only one shot at Police(There was one other panther in the apartment as well named Mark Clark. Clark was asleep in the front room and fired one shot AFTER being fired on by police. He was killed also.) While carrying Hampton’s dead body, Officers involved in the raid were photographed smiling. A Federal Grand Jury will clear all officers involved in the planning or execution of the raid.

More recently, Oscar Grant was gunned down in Oakland, CA by a transit cop on New Year’s Day 2009. The event was captured by surveillance and cell phone video. While being detained and laying face down he was accused of “resisting” arrest. The officer then stated he was going to “tase” Grant but instead drew a gun and shot him once in the back. Oscar Grant died the next morning. The officer was charged with “involuntary” manslaughter and ended up serving 8 months in prison. The defense’s argument was that he “mistakenly” drew his gun instead of his taser.

When it comes to the mistreatment and murder of blacks the list goes on and on. The following is just a short list of black men who have been killed unlawfully. The reason for their deaths are in parentheses. Martin Luther King Jr.(civil rights), Medgar Evers(civil rights), Rev. George Lee(voter registration), Lamar Smith(voter registration), Willie Edwards Jr.(mistaken for a man dating a white woman), Herbert Lee(voter registration), Louis Allen(witnessed Herbert’s Lee’s murder), Cpl. Roman Ducksworth Jr.(mistaken for a freedom rider who was testing bus desegregation laws),Virgil Lamar Ware, 13(shot by white teenagers coming from a segregationist rally), Lt. Col. Lemuel Penn(shot by Klansmen in a passing car returning from military training), Jimmie Lee Jackson( beaten by state troopers for protecting his mother and grandmother from attacks on civil rights marchers), Wharlest Jackson(was promoted to a job position previously for whites only. The KKK planted a bomb in his car), and Benjamin Brown(hit by a stray bullet fired into a crowd by police at a student protest. He was just observing the protest not actively engaged). I could keep going on but I think you get the point.

There is a history of legally sanctioned murder against blacks in America. In particular, there is an open hostility against black men. I know this as I have personally experienced this hostility. So when the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial was announced, I cannot say I was shocked or surprised. This is the history of America. I will not deny that progress has been made. However, when justice continually eludes a specific group of people, at some point, you have to ask why does this keep happening? This has occurred during the 17th, 18th, 19th, 20th, and now 21st century. How long does a behavior need to occur before it’s classified as a pattern? Surely four going on five centuries counts as a pattern! A rudimentary examination of American history illustrates two things: 1) That black life is not valued on the same level as other ethnic groups(in particular whites), 2) There is a deep and pervasive system of racism directed at blacks that manifests itself institutionally. These are uncomfortable truths. Trust me when I tell you that no one wishes this wasn’t so more than African-Americans. The verdict in the George Zimmerman trial exhibits both of these sentiments. I, like Martin Luther King, Jr., wish for the day when I will be judged by the content of my character and not the color of my skin. Sadly, I don’t think that this will occur in my lifetime.



4 thoughts on “Trayvon Martin: Not the First, Not the Last

  1. These reports are so tragic and heartbreaking. I’m am so sorry for what the innocent have had to endure in ‘the land of the free’.

    I didn’t follow the Zimmerman trial closely enough to hear all the arguments on both sides but what I did hear made me believe he was guilty of manslaughter, at least. Common sense tells me that was Trayvon screaming for help. What man with a loaded gun would scream like that? And the screams stopped immediately after the shot. The prosecution team, coroner’s team, detectives, etc did not serve Trayvon well in my opinion. He deserved better.

    What I don’t get is why 90+% of African-American voters keep pulling the lever for big, corrupt, powerful government after the history you listed.

    You say 1) A black life is not valued as much as other ethnic backgrounds. So, why do so many keep voting for the party that treats them like dependent children who need everything from housing to cell phones provided to them? The Democrat Party has essentially bribed African-Americans for votes with taxpayer money – from Americans who aren’t even born yet. Meanwhile, the Party that believes all able adults should stand on their own two feet and pay their own bills – and taxes – are shunned. That’s a message many (of all skin color) don’t want to hear. Respect = Responsibility.

    The dispproportionately high percentage of abortions of black children to the population is another example of this disrespect.

    Also, I don’t understand why so many Americans – black or white – found it acceptable to judge by skin color and not character in the 2008 POTUS election. 98% of one ethnic group voted for the same candidate. I heard
    so many people say, “I couldn’t vote against a brother”. How was that not going against MLK’s hope?

    Yes, King’s dream has a long way to go before fruition. Thank you for your post.

    • Thank-you for responding with such honesty Kate. I believe honest dialogue can help bring our country forward. I am befuddled by my community’s monolithic political ideology. Check that page out it’s something I wrote earlier that speaks to this very issue. I agree the prosecution definitely could have done a better job. There is a long history of conservatism in the black community. Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington both espoused the need for self-reliance and personal accountability. You mention Respect=Responsibility. I agree this is a message that all people need to internalize. Although I am aware of past injustices, I refuse to become weighed down by them. For many African-Americans, the respect you speak of has been beaten, shot, profiled, and imprisoned out of them. I do know that the GOP and other conservatives must find a way to empathize with the racial plight of African-Americans in a tangible and public way. Fiscal Conservatism and moderate or even slightly right of moderate social policies could and have been embraced by African-Americans before. If conservatives want black votes they have to think less like Reagan and more like Eisenhower. Most people, regardless of color, don’t want to be around groups of people that they feel don’t like or hate them. I don’t accuse the GOP of that but that is the prevailing sentiment of blacks. Unfortunately, the George Zimmerman trial will reinforce this as most blacks believe that conservative legislation allows the George Zimmerman’s of the world to walk free. As a side note, I am not a Democrat and could best be described as a moderate libertarian i.e. Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams kinda thought process. Thanks again for your insightful commentary.

      • I totally agree with you. I’ve made recommendations to the RNC and some GOP leaders but they don’t listen to me (cuz I’m not a big donor).

        I’ve blogged about it on The RNC should move headquarters to south Chicago. They should spend the next year listening to the African American communities – not Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson – but the men, women, and children. They should ask, “What can we do for you? What would be helpful to make your lives easier, happier, and more meaningful?”

        Then, private (not-public) partnerships should be set up to facilitate 2-way relationships. It’s the way the old Christian churches used to do before the government took over. For instance, a few churches in my area provide weekly community dinners for free. The RNC ought to be organizing these and more across the country.

        Instead of begging for votes every 2-4 years, we should be interacting with love 24/7/365 non-stop. Some of my most enriching experiences have been with African-American children and teens. That’s why I’ve been sickened by some of the ridiculous attacks against Trayvon.

        He had a hoodie, tattoos, flipped the bird, was suspended, used crude language, and smoked pot. So what? That also describes many white sailors!

        I’m so happy all of the hype about potential riots and violence in wake of an acquittal backfired. Trayvon’s parents and attorneys set the tone. I hope maybe they and others – like yourself – can rise as new leaders toward peace and harmony. I’ll try to do my part as well.

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