Several news outlets (HuffPo among them) have been running an AP article written by novelist and race specialist Jesse Washington. In the article, titled ‘In Trayvon Martin Case, History’s Ghosts Linger,’ Washington attempts to liken the Trayvon Martin case to the murder of Emmett Till.
Of course, the killing of Trayvon Martin bears almost no resemblance to the murder of Emmett Till. Till was killed by two white men who were angry that Till flirted with the white wife of one of the men. Till violated the racial caste system that existed in 1955 Mississippi, and that transgression cost him his life. The white killers who murdered Till did so with impunity because of the reigning ideology of white supremacy in the Jim Crow South.
The murder of Till was premeditated, and involved kidnapping and overt intimidation of the black community in the small Mississippi town where the killing took place. At least one of Till’s murderers was an open, unabashed white supremacist.
Trayvon Martin, on the other hand, was killed by George Zimmerman, a Hispanic man. Martin was killed in the heat of a one-sided fight in which Martin was beating Zimmerman. Contrary to initial false reports, the reaction from the local police where Martin was killed was immediate. The police investigated Zimmerman, interrogated him, and watched him reenact what happened the night of the shooting. They also administered a lie-detector test (which Zimmerman passed).
The police strove to find inconsistencies in Zimmerman’s stories, or some evidence that the killing was not in self-defense. Failing to find such evidence, no charges were filed against Zimmerman. This was the result that Florida law required, because in Florida there must be probable cause that a killing was not in self-defense in order to file charges.
Also critical is the fact that an FBI investigation determined that there was no racial motive to the killing of Trayvon Martin, and Zimmerman had previously lobbied on behalf of a black homeless man who was beaten by the local police. Zimmerman also has Afro-Peruvian ancestry.
In other words, there’s no good evidence that Zimmerman is racist against black people, unlike the white men who killed Emmett Till.
In his article, Jesse Washington pays lip service to the critical differences between these two stories:
Focus on the details, and the cases seem very different. One was killed by virulent white racists, the other by a part-Hispanic neighborhood watchman who insists he faced a vicious attack. One was weighted down and dumped in a river; in the other case, police were called by the shooter himself.
But Washington goes on to talk about all the imagined similarities between the two cases. He practices the kind of journalism where the writer feigns objectivity but in reality is cramming an ambiguous set of facts into a predetermined narrative. It’s akin to the “just asking questions” trick tabloids use. Such a careless, puerile comparison between the Emmett Till tragedy and the Trayvon Martin case only exacerbates the racial tensions surrounding the Martin case.
And we shouldn’t accept it. Because here, the details are everything, and the stakes are too high.
For an eloquent, heartbreaking account of the Emmett Till murder written by Till’s mother, check out this book.