Is Trayvon Martin This Generation’s Emmett Till?

Emmet Till and Trayvon Martin

Emmet Till and Trayvon Martin

Trayvon Martin may very well become this generation’s Emmett Till.

The February 26th shooting death of 17-year-old Martin by George Zimmerman — a self-appointed neighborhood watch captain in Sanford, Florida — has captured national attention and garnered universal outrage.

Martin was gunned down near his father’s home, wearing a hoodie and armed with little more than an iced tea and Skittles.

The senseless killing of an innocent boy, and the failure of the police to arrest the professed gunman, is now a turning point in American history, and not just for African-Americans. This case is at the intersection of racial violence, civil rights and criminal justice.

In August 1955, Emmit Till, 14, was lynched in Mississippi while visiting relatives, reportedly for flirting with a white woman. He was dragged at gunpoint, was beaten and shot, his eye gouged out, and his body thrown into the Tallahatchie River — weighted down by a 70-pound cotton gin. Till’s corpse was badly mutilated, and his mother insisted on an open casket funeral to show the horrific crimes committed against her son. And black mothers today, like Mamie Till, worry that their sons are targets. They fear the worst will happen; that someone will tell them their black boy is dead. WATCH


As Mrs. Till warned her son in Chicago before he went down South, “Be careful. If you have to get down on your knees and bow when a White person goes past, do it willingly.”

Till’s admitted abductors, two white men, were tried and acquitted of murdering and kidnapping. They later confessed to the crime in a magazine interview. In death, the Chicago teen was a flashpoint in the civil rights movement, placing the spotlight on the treatment of black people in Mississippi.

trayvon martin parents

Trayvon Martin's parent's Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton,

Fast forward 57 years, and Trayvon Martin, not unlike Till, could potentially have a large impact on the nation’s psyche. The racial implications of the Martin killing are clear. Although described by his father as “a Spanish-speaking minority with many black family members and friends,” Zimmerman is heard in the 911 call mumbling about “f**king coons.”

Trayvon Martin’s killing continues to expose the problems black men face, the low priority they are assigned as black victims, and the unfair treatment they face at the hands of the police and in the justice system.

Unfortunately, there have been too many Emmett Tills and Trayvon Martins, each a catalyst in his or her own right.

In 1963, four black girls were killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama by the Klu Klux Klan. The bombing sparked nationwide condemnation, and was a factor leading to the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Michael Griffith, 23, was hit by a car and killed in Howard Beach, New York in 1986. A mob of over 10 white teens had chased Griffith onto a highway after beating him and his friends.

Black teen Yusef Hawkins, was shot to death in 1989 after being attacked by a mob of white youths in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn. The killing, which reflected New York’s racial tensions, galvanized the civil rights community and led to the defeat of Mayor Ed Koch in his reelection bid.


million hoodie march

People march Wednesday night after "Million Hoodies" rally at New York's Union Square.

Amadou Diallo, 23, was killed by four plainclothes NYPD officers who believed his wallet was a gun. The officers admitting they fired 41 shots at the Guinean immigrant. The 1999 Diallo shooting galvanized the anti-police brutality movement in New York and around the country, leading to the over 1,700 arrests in mass protests.

Sean Bell, 23, was killed by undercover and plainclothes NYPD police officers in a hail of 50 bullets in 2006. The officers, who were acquitted of all charges, said they believed Bell and his friends were armed when they shot at their car.

On New Year’s Day in 2009, Oscar Grant, 23, was shot in the back in a San Francisco BARTstation, face- down and execution-style, as police officers stood over him. An officer was sentenced to two years for second degree manslaughter.

In September 2011, the state of Georgia executed Troy Davis, a black Savannah resident who was convicted of murdering a white police officer in 1989. The Troy Davis case received worldwide attention in light of evidence pointing to his innocence, including 7 of 9 eyewitnesses recanting or contradicting their testimony. Over 1 million people signed a petition to stop his execution. Civil rights and anti-death penalty activists view the execution of Troy Davis as a turning point in the use of the death penalty in the United States.

david loveAnd now the spotlight is on the Sunshine State, where apparently it has become easier to purchase a gun and kill an innocent black man, but far more difficult for a black man to vote. In 2005, then-Florida Governor Jeb Bush signed the state’s “Stand Your Ground” law — the first in the nation and the reason why Zimmerman has not yet been arrested.

The law eliminates old legal precedent by allowing citizens to use deadly force without retreating when they feel threatened outside the home. Critics maintain that the law, of the law, which exists in at 24 states, encourages people to shoot first and claim self-defense, and promotes a Wild West mentality and racial vigilantism.

The National Rifle Association, the powerful gun lobby, and the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council are pushing for Stand Your Ground laws in all 50 states.

Meanwhile, Florida Governor Rick Scott — who resigned as CEO of Columbia/HCA after paying $1.7 billion in criminal fines for overcharging the federal government in a Medicare fraud scheme — is violating the civil rights of black Floridians. His administration has asked a federal court to throw out a section of the Voting Rights Act, a hallmark of the civil rights movement which provides federal protection to voters of color in states with a history of racial discrimination.

Scott went back to the future by requiring nonviolent felons to wait five years after completing their sentences before applying to have their voting rights restored. In doing so, he resurrected Jim Crow-era felony disenfranchisement laws designed to keep freed slaves from voting.

And according to the U.S. Department of Justice, Florida’s harsh voting restrictions, which also include restrictions on early voting and third-party registration, amount to intentional discrimination.

David A. Love

The poor treatment of black people in Florida and elsewhere provides a backdrop for understanding the killing of Trayvon Martin. Nearly six decades ago, Emmett Till was murdered at a time when the lives of black boys were not highly regarded, and the rights of black Americans were under siege. Well, here we go again. The lessons people learned back then are the lessons we must once again learn today.

David Love
The Grio

Republished with the author’s permission.


  1. leo herrera says

    to all who are being abuse in this world your termite distrect attorneys in America are behind all the killing in America and around the world they own all elegal gun and drug business these termite district attorneys kill who they want not only black people ask any drug addict where their drugs coming from most of them will tell you the truth they are not afraid to tell you the name of the district attorney in your city who are supplying the dealers with all elegal drugs

  2. Deedra Brown says

    This is no Emmett Till moment. It’s just another misinterpreted, misconstrued event that serves to divide us all. As usual, the media is stirring the racial pot to try to keep watching their biased reports. We don’t have the information we need to make a reasonable judgment about this situation. But that’s not stopping people from jumping to conclusions about what happened. Everyone’s interpreting this situation based on their own personal biases.
    It would help if both sides of this issue stop misrepresenting the facts. How recent is that picture of Trayvon Martin? He looks about thirteen or fourteen in that picture. Are they trying to misrepresent what he looks like? We don’t know if Trayvon Martin was a sweet young man who was preyed upon, or if he was a criminal casing the neighborhood on his way back to the house he was staying at. Maybe this was just two stupid, testosterone laden idiots being belligerent with each other. How are we going to find out the truth when everyone is already so polarized in their opinions? And how are we going to make positive changes in the world when everyone is so engrained in their own short-sighted opinions that we can’t discuss what’s going on without personal bias getting in the way?

    • Jon Williams says

       In my day, two stupid, testosterone-laden idiots being belligerent with each other might have each gone home with bloody noses and black eyes. But if one, armed, had killed the other, unarmed, the first would have gone immediately to jail where he’d be held for trial. And are we really to think that Trayvon Martin was intent on doing harm anyone in the neighborhood harm, using candy and a Diet Coke? Whether he looked thirteen or thirty-three, shooting this young man was unacceptable.

      • Deedra Brown says

        The point is that the picture that makes him look 13. He wasn’t 13 at the time of his death. He was over six feet tall, 17 year old football player with enough aggression to punch another adult man and slam his head into the cement.

        … are we really to think that Trayvon Martin was intent on doing harm anyone in the neighborhood harm, using candy and a Diet Coke?

        You see, this is where the discussion gets ridiculous. In order to make the case that big bad whitey hunted down and murdered a little innocent boy, people make up stuff like you just did. Obviously, if Martin was a sweet little 13 year old boy who was just walking home from the store with candy, than Zimmerman wouldn’t have called the cops on him. Are we to believe that 17 year old black men are incapable of committing crimes like burglary and assault? What world are you living in if you believe that?
        That fact is, lots of young black men commit violent crimes. This may or may not be another one. The court will hopefully use real evidence, not silly opinions like yours, to determine what happened.

        • Jon Williams says

           Gosh, Deedra, I just did a Google search for images of Trayvon Martin and all I found were pictures of a pleasant-looking teen. I hardly think that, by 17, he could have turned much scarier looking. I’m just pretty sure that a white kid the same age, dressed in the same clothes, would not have drawn Zimmerman’s attention, would not have been harassed by Zimmerman, and never would have ended up dead. In fact, Zimmerman is probably intimidated by attractive younger men and saw Trayvon as someone he could safely pick on. Just sharing thoughts but yes, in my opinion, race played a very big part in what happened.

          • Deedra Brown says

            You have no idea what happened. You’re just making stuff up because you WANT this situation to match your preconceived notions about what you think happened.

            I’m just pretty sure that a white kid the same age, dressed in the same clothes, would not have drawn Zimmerman’s attention

            You’re pretty sure, huh? You have no idea, you weren’t there. You don’t know Zimmerman, but in the past he has called the police on suspicious white people as well. Maybe you should do a little research before you announce that you know what goes on in other people’s minds.
            Trayvon Martin might have been a sweet young teenager who would never have caused a problem. Or he might be an aggressive young man who was p!ssed off that he was being “profiled” by the neighborhood watch. (By the way, profiling isn’t illegal. It’s simply a natural response to the many other people of your group who have committed crimes in the area, including burglaries in that neighborhood.) If Trayvon Martin angrily decided to teach Zimmerman a lesson by punching him and smashing his head into concrete, then Martin was killed because he was in the process of causing serious injury or death to the man he was beating. That’s called self defense. If that’s how this went down, comments like yours do nothing except incite other young black men to stupidly react with aggression and hostility, which is obviously not a good survival strategy.

  3. Hwood007 says

    Why are you not giving the black on black killings as much attention as this case?  What of a young child killed when an AK47 shoots into a home 30+ times and kills a back child? The black on white or white on black crimes  seem to get all the coverage, and Al does not show up often for black on black crime. All killings are bad no matter who is dead.  Do you know that more humans die in the womb per year than anyother place..

  4. Clarabu77 says

    There is a killer on the loose. At the very least, Zimmerman should be taken in for a psychiatric evaluation. If he had simply phoned in a report, returned to his home and waited for the actual officers of the law to arrive, I would hope that Trayvon Martin would still be alive.  How was a young man being chased by an armed man to respond, if not to attempt a fight for his life? The thought of being in that situation…if it were a child of mine…There has to be some form of investigation, local police are not judge and jury!

  5. Gabrialsingh says

    how about Oscar Grant in Oakland…that was the event that set off the Oakland Occupy Movement….he was shot in the back, unarmed, with a knee in his back, by a BART cop..who, btw, is already out of jail…how long will the fascist police state stay in power??

    • marshllr says

      On the night he died, Oscar Grant and his gangbanger friends  were smashing up a BART train; the police responded to calls from scared passengers. Grant already had a record for carrying a gun and running from police. He was a gangbanger who got more than he bargained for. What is really tragic is that there are thousands of minority youth who work hard and try to get a career for themselves and we never hear about them. I guess there is no political gain for Sharpton, Jackson, etc. in any good news.

  6. Jim H. says

    Once we decide to carry a gun you have made the decision to kill someone ( anyone ) nationality doesn’t matter..
    Those of us that don’t want to be killed or our family members and friends need to step up to the plate and say enough of this and stop trying to find reasons why it happened.

    I don’t understand why the law enforcement didn’t treat this as pending an investigation knowing the history of the gunman, maybe he’s an informant….

  7. marshllr says

    It’s all about the money  for the lawyers and the parents now. We don’t really know what happened. But let’s not wait for the investigation….just execute the “white guy”, send a big check to the parents, and let Sharpton, Jackson, and the others crawl back into the woodwork. With a long hot summer coming, just watch out for the 7-Eleven flash mobs and downtown riots in Chicago, Philly, Atlanta, etc….that’s much more fun than doing the “whitey thing” and hitting the books! Reparations now!

  8. Jon Williams says

    My letter to the L.A. Times regarding Sandy Banks heart-wrenching column…

    Today’s right-wingers have their very own “War On Poverty” in which the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin is merely collateral damage. Like hundreds of civilians murdered in Afghanistan simply because they stood too close to “suspected terrorists,” Trayvon died because we’ve decided that “shoot first, ask questions later” is perfectly rational policy. The President says Trayvon looked like the son he might have had? Why can’t the man who’s supposed to be setting an example for the nation, and in fact the world, see the kinship in Afghan innocents simply trying to enjoy their own equivalent of Skittles and Arizona Iced Tea?

    • ronwf says

       The presumption that George Zimmerman shot down Trayvon in cold blood is premature.  There is at least one witness (see here) who states that he saw Trayvon on top of George, beating him up.

      An independent review of this death is definitely needed.  But let’s wait until the facts are out before we make any assumptions about what happened and why.

  9. Marta says

    even under the supremely f****ed up  “Stand Your Ground” Florida law, there was NO reason for Zimmerman to shoot. 

    Treyvon’s coldblooded, premeditated murder is disgusting enough, but the aftermath is is doubly vile, and incredibly suspiciousZimmerman followed Trayvon despite that the 911operator told him not to.The police that came to the death scene were NOT homicide detectives, but narcotics division. WHY?Zimmerman had an altercation with a cop yet charges were DROPPED. WHY?Zimmerman  does not get a sobriety test, or even taken to headquarters for questioning WHY?Despite time passed and all the facts emerging about this murder, he has NOT been questioned again, much less charged. WHY?Why are the police protecting this guy? Is he an informant on a drug case?”

    Zimmerman committed premeditated murder, and unless the feds get in there and do SOMETHING he will get away with it. And in the meantime the sheriff will take, as he puts it, a “temporary resignation— which I read to mean he will take a paid vacation.

    • Marte says

       Thank you, Marta.  That’s all I’ve got in me to say right now.  Mostly just trying to see whether LA Progressive still recognises me.

    • Gary100dm says

      I completely agree. And I’m sure “Stand Your Ground” would not have been interpreted this way if the situation were reversed and Zimmerman was black and Treyvon white. It’s just an excuse for a lynching. Even with “Stand Your Ground” there is absolutely no legal excuse not to make an arrest.  – Gary 


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