By Tim Black
People refer to him simply as “Trayvon.” As if we knew him personally. We identify so closely with him and with his parents. We think of Trayvon as a beloved young son of the entire African American people. His anguished parents displayed great dignity throughout the trial.
Around our kitchen tables, it’s the topic of serious discussion. Within our families, we have the full gamut of emotions, confusions and attitudes about the murder of Trayvon Martin. Families express fear, especially for their sons. We want to be firm and steadfast in the face of racist violence. But we don’t want our children to act rashly or become victims. Many place our hope for the future in the name of the Lord, or in our belief in the law and its processes.
The overwhelming emotional responses of African Americans and others have been deep disappointment, grief and anger. But not despair. The outpouring of protesters in New York and L.A. and San Francisco and Baltimore shows that people want to get organized and act powerfully.
When people ask me what we ought to do in this situation, I think it’s already beginning to happen: On a practical level we have to hold more demonstrations and visit our public officials in the states where we can still vote and tell them in no uncertain terms that if they don’t take action their political careers will be brief.
What gets my goat is hearing the reporters and the jurists who said that race was not a factor in their deliberations. I bet most people anywhere in the world would agree that race was and remains a motivating factor. If Trayvon had been white, that man would probably not have shot him. Conversely, if Trayvon had been the shooter, he’d be going to prison for life — at best. In Florida, he’d get the death penalty. They may not have much down there, but they still have the electric chair. Don’t tell me race is not a factor. If this verdict doesn’t put an end to talk of a “post racial America,” I don’t know what will.
Those of us who are old enough to remember — we’ve seen this all before. I’m reminded of the trial of the Scottsboro Boys — framed-up for rape in the early 1930s in Alabama. I’m thinking too of the murder of Emmett Till in Mississippi in the mid 1950s. At trial, the message was the same 80 years ago, 60 years ago: “He was up to no good.” “They were up to something.” Racial profiling is nothing new and it provides the same sorry excuse to do violence to Black men now as it did then.
But both the Scottsboro frame-up and the Emmett Till murder were met by massive organizing campaigns by the freedom movement. We made sure that people understood that both legal lynching and literal lynching were motivated by racial hatred, not “self-defense.” We organized around these cases years before we had yet heard of Dr. King.
The trial of the accused murderers of Emmett Till was for many Americans and especially for Black Americans a moment of revelation. They witnessed how the carefully constructed defense case exonerated those Klansmen. The trial and the not-guilty verdict elevated our political consciousness. The entire Black community, whether rich or poor, articulate or uneducated – knew what had happened.
Less than six months after Emmett Till’s murder, the Montgomery Bus Boycott began and the mass movement took on a national scale and began to gather international attention.
It would be roughly another decade before the Voting Rights Act became the law of the land. And even then, it was to be subject to renewal by Congress every 10 years. And now in 2013 these Dixie Republicans were able to go before the U.S. Supreme Court — after half a century — and argue with a straight face, “We no longer need all these restrictions on voting regulations. We don’t need them anymore.” And the conservatives on the Court – including a Black man who wouldn’t even be there, save for the victories of the civil rights movement – removed the heart of the Voting Rights Act. It will enable the states to resurrect so-called regulations and tests that can eliminate poor folks from voting, and most of them will be Black, which is how things were before.
People ask me how it makes me feel, to see the reversal of so much progress. Does it feel like my life’s work is being undone? My answer: I am aggravated, but not discouraged.
Why? Because we have seen what the power of an awakened people can accomplish. If anything, I am even more firm in my determination to continue, not to stop. I am not surprised at all by this turn of events. It’s all part of life in a society dominated by a powerful, conservative, money-hungry class of people who are less than two percent of the population.
Somebody asked me: If you could sit down with Clarence Thomas and talk sense to him, what would you say to him? I responded that I don’t think Clarence Thomas can be talked to. He does not care for the opinions or pleas of Black people.
What we need now is not to try to win over one or another of these conservatives. We need to get an amendment that once again takes those voting restrictions out of order. That restores the principle of our Constitution, that all men and women are created equal. In the South, they will place new obstacles in the paths of those who want to cast a vote. We need to press Congress to put teeth back into the Voting Rights Act.
I remember my father went in to vote in Alabama, and one of the questions they would pose was, “Did your grandfather vote?” My father’s grandfather, of course, was a slave. This was used to try to deny him the right to vote. Others, even highly educated Blacks in Alabama, were given tasks like answering a question written in French or in German – all sorts of stunts to knock them out of the voting place. And this is the sort of thing they want to re-introduce, in order to limit the right to vote.
I first voted when I was 21, back before the age was lowered to 18. At that time, back in the 1930s, your parents expected you to register and to vote. In Chicago, the Black population voted in far greater percentage than all other immigrant and ethnic groups. Perhaps we had a greater appreciation because we had been so long denied this right in the South. Even during World War II, we voted while in combat. We didn’t give up the franchise. We had fought too hard to get it.
In Chicago we are dealing with another sort of autocratic government. In spite of the express wishes of tens of thousands of Chicagoans, we have a local government that is trampling on the Black community and its institutions, especially its schools. We need to improve our democratic practices right here in Chicago. We need the energy and the knowledge to speak and stand up. We need to confront the legislators at our local and state level, particularly those who have some control of the money such as those on the finance committees, to hear our demands and to consider their political futures.
They ignore us at their peril. All our recent mayors were elected because of the Black vote — Jane Byrne, Harold Washington, Daley and now Emanuel. But Black registration is way down. We’ve got to organize. You know, while he was in the U.S. Congress, Harold Washington — before he became mayor — was the lead person on the extension of the Voting Rights Act. He understood the power that it represented.
I think we ought to be organizing now for a huge showing at the March on Washington on Aug. 24. This will be the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington. This one needs to be huge. It needs to press the Congress on Voting Rights. It needs to press the Justice Department on Trayvon. People should try to get there. That would be one indicator of the anger that is shared by young people – who were not even born yet when the 1963 March on Washington occurred. Let’s talk to our young people about this history, and let’s talk about the importance of retaining and extending real democracy. How will your life be affected if the Voting Rights Act is not enforced in its original spirit and intent? Our young people’s futures will be profoundly diminished. But it’s not too late. It’s not irreversible.
Let’s make sure we are out there pressing the demands for justice in the spirit of the marchers and martyrs who fought for equality in 1963, and in memory of our sons Emmett Till and Trayvon Martin.
As the saying goes, freedom is a constant struggle. This is no time to slack off. It’s time to organize and fight back. We won justice before and we can win it again.