The American Antecedents of the Trayvon Martin Tragedy


I don’t think there’s much I can add to what’s already been said on the terrible tragedy that occurred to Trayvon Martin in Florida, but there was a disturbing parallel that immediately came to mind when I heard about what had happened, and that his killer was still free.

As I have mentioned before, I am reading Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass with my students, and in Chapter IV, Douglass details the gruesome shooting of a man named Demby by (the aptly named) Mr. Gore, an overseer. According to Douglass:

His horrid crime was not even submitted to judicial investigation . . . the guilty perpetrator of one of the bloodiest and most foul murders goes unwhipped of justice, and uncensured by the community in which he lives. Mr. Gore lived in St. Michael’s, Talbot county, Maryland, when I left there; and if he is still alive, he very probably lives there now; and if so, he is now, as he was then, as highly esteemed and as much respected as though his guilty soul had not been stained with his brother’s blood.

I speak advisedly when I say this,—that killing a slave, or any colored person, in Talbot county, Maryland, is not treated as a crime, either by the courts or the community.”

Douglass then gives another gruesome example, of a slaveholder’s wife who beat a girl to death:

“Mrs. Hicks, finding the girl slow to move, jumped from her bed, seized an oak stick of wood by the fireplace, and with it broke the girl’s nose and breastbone, and thus ended her life. I will not say that this most horrid murder produced no sensation in the community. It did produce sensation, but not enough to bring the murderess to punishment. There was a warrant issued for her arrest, but it was never served. Thus she escaped not only punishment, but even the pain of being arraigned before a court for her horrid crime.”

Douglass spoke from a moment in our history over 150 years ago, but the profound wound of a societally accepted injustice and brutality still stings today.

The difference today is that the outcry that has been rightfully raised has been loud enough to prompt a federal investigation into the shooting. For more on how awareness on the case was raised, read deeper into the MotherJones article.

President Obama said “if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” demonstrating just how critically important it is to have a leader who can understand and speak directly to those long suffering under a history of oppression, and further demonstrating how today is different than Douglass’ day.

But rightwing punditry backlash against Obama’s commiseration with Martin’s parents demonstrates, on the other hand, just how mired in racial tension we remain.

To pretend that race has nothing to do with this case is to ignore our own history.

Some things have changed, but some things remain the same.

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