I teach about a terrible time in American history, the turn of the twentieth century. It was time when Black men, women, and children were lynched weekly. In fact, nearly 3000 black southerners were lynched between 1890 and 1917. Some of those that were lynched were accused of crimes, but none were allowed the right to a trial. The majority of those killed were not guilty of anything beyond being in the wrong place, failing to behave with sufficient deference to white authority, or for striving to be something better. There were even Black southerners who were lynched for having books in their homes.
And lynchings were rituals of torture that were witnessed by large mobs. Hundreds, sometimes thousands of white southerners, were participants in these rituals of death. After the bodies were rendered lifeless, the corpses were left hanging, warnings to the living that they too should be afraid. The members of lynch mobs made no attempts to hide their faces, but instead posed for pictures with the corpses, smiling as if they had caught a fish, or killed a deer. People sent these lynching pictures as postcards through their local post office. There was no fear of prosecution; most often sheriffs, judges, and legislators turned a blind eye. Often times they could be seen among those in the lynch mob.
Black families would have to gather under the cover of the night to claim their dead. There was nowhere for them to turn for justice accept one another. There were brave journalists who would record these atrocities of racial terror like Ida B. Wells and John Mitchell Jr. who worked fervently at the risk of their own lives to report lynching and call for officials to protect the lives of all citizens regardless of their color. In the 1910’s the NAAACP would take up this important work, calling for federal anti-lynching legislation to protect African Americans throughout the nation.
When I teach about the history of the segregated South, sometimes my students remark that things are just as bad now as they were then, that conditions for Black Americans are still as bleak for too many. Often my response is that if someone were to hang me or them by that tree in front of the building, someone would come. The law would investigate. Our citizenship would matter in at least that crucial way.
This month is challenging that assumption. When Trayvon Martin was murdered for looking "suspicious", killed without any pretense of a trial, the police failed to come. I know that they came to the scene of the crime, but they failed to come with the force of the law on behalf of this young man. His body was tested by the state with the assumption that somehow he was the criminal and needed to be screened for drugs and alcohol. It was Martin's guilt, not his murderer's, that was assumed on the scene. The police decided on the scene that Martin's death was justified, not worthy of careful investigation or trial. They didn't even bother to use his cell phone to try and contact his next of kin quickly. Instead his body would be left unidentified for days.
It is devastating to reflect on the parallels between the murder of Trayvon Martin and the murder of thousands of African Americans a century ago. And I, for one, am not sure what this means in 2012. But in the age where folks have decided that the best approach to the problem of race is silence and calls to be color blind, I am glad that thousands of Americans of all backgrounds are standing to call for justice for Trayvon. Trayvon Martin was a citizen. It's way past time for the police in the state of Florida to act like it.