It has been a sad weekend for many of us, at least since late Saturday evening when the verdict in the Trayvon Martin case was made public. We were in bed listening to the Red Sox game in the dark. (They would eventually lose to Oakland with an 11th inning walkoff). Just before turning the game off and going to sleep Maya switched the station and we heard the verdict. It was a little after 11:00pm. Around 1:00am I gave up trying to sleep, got up and went out to the livingroom. I started reading all the Facebook posts and comments of my friends. Unfortunate that the only option to show agreement and support for someone’s post is to “like” it. There was not much to like about this news.
As I am wont to do, I looked to history to cast some perspective on the events. One friend referred to an oft-quoted remark, that a black man “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” Turns out the the remark is from the 1857 Dred Scott decision and was part of the majority opinion written by then Chief Justice Roger B. Taney (pronounced “tawny”). It also turns out that the decision was not as simple as popular opinion has it. I won’t go into the decision itself here, but two things I would remark: One, that the above statement, which is usually simply attributed to Taney as his personal opinion and the simple summary of the court’s decision, was actually his summary of what was the history of the nation’s actions and rulings from its beginnings up to that point. Two, that Taney, unlike Thomas Jefferson and others, manumitted his own slaves. A third interesting fact which turned up in my searchings was that Dred Scott himself was freed by the son of his original owner just three months after the ruling.
All of which only goes to show that things are often not entirely what they seem.
The next morning at my church the service, which included the joy of a baptism, was changed at the last minute to include a tribute to Trayvon and prayers for his family and all, but especially young black men, who are affected by the unjust outcome. The minister and several young men wore hoodies as they read a responsive litany which asked a number of questions including, “How do we seek truth when justice is denied?” and “How do we deal with anger?” and answered them with the words of Elie Wiesel, Martin Luther King, Jr. and others. A can of iced tea and a package of Skittles were placed on the altar and remained there for the rest of the service. The little baby waiting to be baptized was passed back and forth between family members in the pews, all the while in fascination watching our music director play the piano and keyboard and listening to the choir and soloists. Later, after being baptized, the pastor carried him up and down the aisles and around for several minutes to greet every church member and visitor while an impromptu “Take Me To The Waters” was sung by the choir and congregation.
But the rest of Sunday and today the events and the decision and the reactions to it continued to play in my mind. Here are several things I have remarked since then. I thought of another trial fifty years ago, the trial in Mississippi of Byron De La Beckwith, accused of the murder of Medgar Evers. And my first thought was a version of “well nothing has changed in fifty years”. I was 17 at the time Evers was murdered, and I remember the events and the subsequent trials and their outcome. The arc of justice in that instance turned out to be quite long. De La Beckwith was tried again forty years later after the 1964 proceedings ended in mistrials. He died in prison seven years later. One reading of the first two trials was that the jury (all white in each trial) was unable to convict him. Another reading is that they were unable to aquit him. Glass half full, or half empty? I don’t know, but at least someone on both juries thought he was guilty of something. One thing certainly different today is that the governor of the state of Florida did not get involved. In De La Beckwith’s second trial, Mississippi governor Ross Barnett interrupted the trial in the courtroom while Myrlie Evers sat on the witness stand and shook De La Beckwith’s hand.
Another difference is that yesterday and this morning the only headlines in the papers and on the news were of demonstrations and discussions, not of riots and deaths, though to be sure there were instances reported of vandalism in Oakland and a police officer surrounded by an angry crowd in Los Angeles. The very facts of the case, the death of 17 year old Trayvon Martin and the fact that his killer was acquitted may serve as an example and a motivation to a generation of black, and white, youth and young adults who do not remember the events of the fifties and sixties, and for whom Martin Luther King, Jr. is little more than a portrait and a set of familiar quotes recited every year in January. The recent Supreme Court decision invalidating part of the Civil Rights Act – a law which was brought to vote in 1964 and passed in great part because of Evers’ death and the injustice in Mississippi – and the efforts to suppress the vote in recent elections may also provide a basis for moving this generation to act anew in addressing racial injustice.
I certainly hope so anyway.