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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?