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How Long? Not Long?

By August 2, 2013 6 Comments


My mind keeps circling back to Trayvon Martin—not to the person, admittedly, nor to the trial with its outrageous verdict. But to the Stand Your Ground law that made that verdict so predictable, to the sociology behind it, to the long history behind both, and to the question of how long that history will persist.

The behavior of the man who killed Martin, George Zimmerman, bespeaks a vigilante; and the “justice” (for that is the noun that vigilantism calls forth) which his deed delivered qualifies as a lynching. As the record behind the current movie 42 reveals, lynching was the fate threatened upon a more famous black man, Jackie Robinson, in the self-same town of Sanford, Florida where Trayvon Martin was tried for being murdered. And, of course, Robinson would have been one more of thousands of black men turned into the “strange fruit” which hanged from the Southern tree under Jim Crow. For its part, Jim Crow lynching represented a continuation of 200 years of beatings, whippings, and killings that the slave codes of the pre-Civil War South permitted white owners and authorities—official or self-appointed—to inflict with impunity. It was South Carolina that came up with the most draconian of those codes in the aftermath of the Stono Rebellion of 1739. Beset and afflicted, white families bewailed how they had to carry guns even to the house of the Lord because their servants were so mysteriously insurrectionary. Mandatory gun ownership and mounted patrols to watch the neighborhood became staples of Carolina life. Perhaps George Zimmerman’s main grievance is to have been born 250 years too late.

Well, all that’s history; we have a black president now. Which makes for the interesting question: how could the Trayvon Martin execution happen during the reign of Barack Obama? Or the really interesting question: how could it not? Opinion polls during the Obama presidency have consistently shown African Americans to feel better about the country and its future than whites, particularly harder-pressed whites, despite the loss of jobs and wealth that has afflicted both groups since the onset of the Great Recession. Such movements as the Birthers and Tea Party, along with the radio hosts that urge them on and the corporate zillions that grease their wheels, have created a barely polite enough racist lexicon and trough of images to fight the good fight of a white hegemony heading for the brink. This past year of Supreme Court decisions included the possibility of same-sex marriage on an ominously states-rights basis, but otherwise pushed power up the class dial and down that of racial minorities. The long wail of a disappearing white world continues to be heard in the land, acted out in the courts—and executed on the streets. How could a Trayvon not pay for a Barack’s success?

Somehow the sainted Martin Luther King, Jr. is boxed up in the amber where beauty and extinct rarities are preserved for school children to stroll by on museum visits—part of a civics class unit on the civil rights movement that is remembered for its noble testimony to America’s virtues of self-correction, a movement that was over long long ago, and that surely doesn’t need to be repeated today. The Supreme Court just said so in eviscerating the Voting Rights Act.

That act was passed in 1965, one hundred years after the conclusion of the Civil War and the delivery of slave emancipation. The Civil War gave on to a twelve-year Reconstruction which ended when Federal troops were ordered to stand down in the Southern states they still occupied as part of a corrupt deal that delivered the 1876 presidential election to the Republican candidate Rutherford B. Hayes. Flip forward 100 years. The 1965 climax to the civil rights movement gave on to fifteen years of tumult and progress, whose eclipse was signaled by the decision of Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan to kick off his 1980 campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights workers had been slaughtered in 1964. “States rights,” Reagan intoned that day, and everyone present understood what he meant. “Stand Your Ground” he could as well have said.

So where does it go? Where does it end? The regress of black rights that began in 1877 ran to the pit of Plessy vs. Ferguson twenty years later. That decision coincided with a great depression that helped trigger the Progressive Era which started to discipline the runaway industrial machine that had come to dominate the North; but economic progress up North spelled continued regress on race for another twenty years yet. Only with the need for black labor to replace the European immigrant tide that had been cut off with World War I did the pendulum of history start to swing the other way.

In sum, the first emancipation and Reconstruction was followed by a forty-year drought. The second emancipation and Reconstruction from 1945 to 1980 has been followed by an ebb tide that’s over thirty years old now. Are we similarly fated to wait a full forty years for a better day? Will things only turn with the re-election of Hillary in 2020? We’ve certainly had in the long generation of 1980 to 2008 a full repetition of the Gilded Age that spanned 1865 to 1893. No progressive chage on the front of economic justice seems to be dawning yet, although—remember—the original didn’t do much for racial justice either.

Some say that history never repeats itself. Others say, true, but it does rhyme. Martin Luther King said its long arc bends toward justice. How long, he would ask his audiences. Not long, the crowd would respond. But now, in this fading age fifty years after his great triumph before the Lincoln Memorial, who knows what time it is?


James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. His most recent book (which he edited and completed for the late John Woolverton) is  “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.


  • Debra Rienstra says:

    Fascinating. Chilling. Your insights prove repeatedly that we need to know our history even to begin to perceive the forces at work in the present. Thank you for this instructive post–or should I say lament?

  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Lament, Debra, lament.

  • Steve Jones says:

    "… outrageous verdict"

    So, the correct conclusion for the jury was that Zimmerman ought to have allowed Martin to beat him to death rather than act in self-defense? Is that your position? Is that rational?

    "…qualifies as a lynching"

    It's a lynching when a mob gets together and murders someone in cold blood. It's premeditated. Zimmerman was hardly acting as a vigilante but as a concerned citizen. He shot his attacker only to save his own life. Anyone should be able to see the distinction between a lynching and an act of self-defense.

    "… Jackie Robinson"

    Jackie Robinson was an honorable man who did great things to advance his race. Martin was a violent punk. What an absurd comparison, sir. Please learn to distinguish between things that differ so radically.

    "… how could the Trayvon Martin execution happen during the reign of Barack Obama?"

    Execution? Again, see my comments on lynching. And only a college professor would see Obama's presidency as a "reign." Wishful thinking?

    "…Tea Party, along with radio hosts…racist lexicon …"

    Ah, the old sanctimonious meme of "my ideological opponents are morally flawed racists." There's scant evidence of racism among any of these groups you've cited. The left, however, with its "we must take care of you minority folks like little children because you're clearly not capable of it yourselves" shows plenty of evidence. Bags of it.

    "The long wail of a disappearing white world…"

    The "wailing" white population put Obama in office, for Gawd's sake!! You know that. Stop exaggerating white racism, as your ilk is so wont to do. Doubtless, such sentiments win brownie points among the faculty lounge elites, but the solemnly intoned assertion is, nevertheless, a tub of horsecrap. People like you keep picking the scab, pretending we're still in the Jim Crow era when any rational person — black or white — knows that's simply not true. You keep the disunity and distrust alive and you ought be reviled for it. Read Thomas Sowell and be enlightened.

    "…eviscerating the Voting Rights Act"

    Heaven forbid that people should have to prove who they are before they vote. I know, I know. White progressive elites think blacks are too dense and incompetent to obtain an ID, so your paternalistic instincts kick in. Oh, what would the African American population be without the likes of you guys? Gives you a moral buzz, doesn't it?

    "No progressive chage [sic] on the front of economic justice seems to be dawning yet, although…"

    Really? We have a president who wishes to "spread the wealth around" and an entire political party eager to fulfill that wish. Besides, some of us see "economic justice" as "you keep what you earn," not "government will confiscate someone else's wealth and give it to you." Again, read Sowell, a truly great man of color.

    "Martin Luther King said …"

    Sir, he also said we ought to judge others by the content of their character, not the color of their skin. When will people like you ever help King's dream come to fruition. You have paralyzed progress with your self-righteous, self-preening, tenderer-than-thou obsession with skin color. Let's me done with it, please. Some of us would like to see progress.

    One final thought: Are you nearly as concerned with the abundant, daily carnage of black-on-black crime as you are about this isolated case in Sanford, FL? Granted, addressing this vastly more serious problem doesn't create the same saintly aura around the person sounding off. Which, I suppose, is a good explanation as to why the left doesn't champion this particular cause. Or the 70-percent out-of-wedlock birth rate among African Americans. Or the 80-pecent dropout rate in Detroit high schools. No, no, George Zimmerman is a much bigger problem. Sure he is. Sure he is.

  • Suzanne says:

    @Dr. Rienstra & Rev. Meeter – agreed. @ Dr. Bratt – even as a long denizen of the Lower Peninsula, the kids are gone, so don't take it upon yourself to feed additional trolls. ( … )

  • Don Thoms says:

    Thanks to Steve Jones above for sharing a bit of reality in the midst of the myth surrounding the Martin/Zimmerman trial, and its' propagation by James Bratt.

  • Joella Ranaivoson says:

    Professor Bratt, thank you for this.

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