The Price of the Ticket: The Legal Inequity that Leads to Lynching

By Stanford Lewis
Guest Contributor
27th October 2012, 13:51 GMT

Trayvon Martin Protest - Sanford
Trayvon Martin Protest – Sanford (Photo credit: werthmedia)

First, let me state for the record that I voted for President Barack Obama in 2008 because I thought he was the best overall candidate. And I plan to vote for Obama again on November 6th 2012. But in this election year, my vote will primarily be for his stance on healthcare.

To my way of thinking, a vote against Mitt Romney’s draconian politics is a vote cast for Obama.

And though this may not be seen as exactly current news, I’m still plagued by the handling of the Trayvon Martin case.

I’m sorry to say this, but Obama gets an F-minus on this issue. There remains a right and wrong in this scenario, and as a Harvard–trained theologian I maintain our President was on the wrong side; he should have never played politics with Trayvon’s humanity. By “playing politics” I refer specifically to the idea that as a Black man he was running on merit not race. Obama certainly possessed the education and political background to be able to govern America. But, after a Black child was brutally murdered, he trivialized the tragedy by admitting he shared the same ethnic identity of the murdered boy in order to quiet African American discontent in an election year. Obama stated “If I had a son he would look like Trayvon”. Did he pander to Black people’s sensibilities of racial identity? If so, it is in stark contrast to the platform from which he sought office in 2008.

It is not enough for the Black President to have simply identified with Trayvon’s race; but also the issues concerning the violation of Trayvon’s civil and human rights.

Trayvon Martin’s life was stolen from him. Regrettably, Obama is Black when it does Trayvon the least amount of good.

Trayvon Martin’s parents, Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, shocked and daze. The case continues with George Zimmerman, where the judge will rule as to whether she will issue a gag order due to the ‘publicity’ surrounding the case. Photo: AP

Trayvon Martin is the contemporary Emmett Till. His tragic and unfortunate murder by George Zimmerman is yet another flat note in the symphony of lynching which began not long after the first 20 Africans were brought to Jamestown, Virginia in 1619. The great Ida B Wells in her fearless book, A Red Record: Tabulated Statistics and Alleged Causes of Lynching in the United States, documents hundreds of these despicable cases. What causes my blood to boil is that as Africans in America, if we are to be successful we are ‘expected’ to join the ranks of the white Americans who have a selective memory of the history we have experienced in this nation. Principally, we are expected to ignore slavery. I would even go as far as to call this phenomenon selective amnesia. We are expected and we often times deny any relationship with Africa. We are expected to forget white America’s hatred for Africans and their descendants.

When we forget the past, and silence becomes the code word, we simultaneously forget the lessons learned from the past.

As we participate in this selective amnesia it forces us to forget Dred Scott who in 1857 dared to challenge white supremacy in the landmark case, Dred Scott v. Sandford. Chief Justice Taney, writing for a majority of the United States Supreme Court in response to the question whether enslaved Africans were to be included in “We the People” of the United States Constitution concluded:

“…The [enslaved Africans] had for more than a century before been
regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate
with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far inferior,
that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and
that the Negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his

Picture of a Black man tied to a whipping post in Delaware. Photo: Archive

At the beginning of the twentieth century within the first two years, more than 200 African Americans were lynched. So volatile was the climate that in 1903 in the publication of his groundbreaking treatise, The Souls of Black Folks, Dr. W.E.B. Du Bois prophetically pronounced, “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line…” With the passage of the 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution, African Americans were guaranteed equal rights under the law, and Black men were granted the right to vote respectively. It appeared for a few years that the white power structure was finally going to “do the right thing” i.e., act morally. However,

Rutherford B. Hayes left the fate of African Americans to the hostility of the South, during the Reconstruction Era (1865-1877) where the prevailing discriminatory laws and regulations known as Jim Crow excluded African Americans from life’s mainstream.

The Civil Rights Movement was born out of the attempt to answer centuries of unresolved race issues. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was enacted because the federal government failed to implement and enforce the 14th and 15th amendments of the Constitution; which for all practical purposes negated the 13th amendment. The prevailing white racist sentiment of the 1960s and extending to the 1970s was that America was a nation of laws and by fighting for equality and the dismantling of segregationist Jim Crow laws, we were in violation of said laws. Yet, African Americans never disputed the fact that America is a nation of laws; our claim was and still is that our Civil Rights failed to be enforced, ultimately, taking our humanity for granted.

Ku Klux Klan burning crosses at a private rally. Photo: Archive

During the Reaganomics era of the 1980s, there was a deluge of white American backlash, namely conservative Americans citing reverse racism. This was the result of the landmark decision handed down in 1978 by the United States Supreme Court in the case of University of California v. Bakke, where it ruled that the admission process of its medical school was unconstitutional for setting aside 16 of the 100 seats for non-white students. This served to systematically dismantle the primary gains of the Civil Rights Movement, while simultaneously celebrating a national holiday created for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the acknowledged leader of the Civil Rights Movement. The irony of these malicious acts is not lost on the intelligent. America was and still is deeply divided over the issue of race and entitlements.

If we separate ourselves from our historical past we also distance ourselves from the lessons we need to learn.

Hence, cases like Trayvon Martin’s are viewed in political isolation when in actuality they are a part of the tapestry and history of denying the legal rights of African Americans – which is dangerous to the safety and security of African American people. We must therefore demonstrate proactive prudence in halting continued lynchings in America. Few people would dare suggest that Jewish people should forget the Holocaust. However, when the atrocious criminality of the African Maafa (African Holocaust) is mentioned, we are told to ‘build a bridge and get over it’. Maybe we could build a bridge and get over it if the lynchings of African-Americans along with the profuse and random acts of murder against us would stop – and, if when they do occur, the laws of this nation against murder and the lynching of African-American people were enforced by the government. Instead, many of us react negatively when those of us who are politically conscious begin to attack white supremacy and denounce white racism in the age of Obama. In the days following Trayvon Martin’s lynching, while at home watching the evening news in Memphis,

I heard a Black grandmother say that she immediately removed her grandchildren from the scene of a rally being held at the Civil Rights Museum for Trayvon Martin where a group of Black so-called ‘radicals’ dared to suggest that white supremacy was at the core of Trayvon’s murder.

Roll over Dr. King, Dr. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells, Fannie Lou Hamer, all of whom died fighting for justice in addition to the millions who died anonymously at the hands of white supremacy.

Emmett Till and his mother Mamie Till, photo circa 1955.

President Barack Obama, a master politician and eloquent speaker, waited nearly a month after the shooting to weigh in on Trayvon Martin’s case. He walks closely in the footsteps of past Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt who both fell silent on the issue of lynching in America. Did he miss the issue on purpose because this is an election year? In his statement he called the lynching a “tragedy” and maintained boldly, “if I had a son he’d look like Trayvon.”

Yes, Trayvon’s murder was a tragedy—one that we as African-Americans are all too familiar with. And, yes, Mr President, we know that if you, a Black man had a son by your wife, a Black woman, he would look like Trayvon.

So what?

And, it is not ironic that even Newt Gingrich, an ultra-conservative white Republican broke rank and sided with Trayvon Martin when he said, “Apparently, the shooter was following the young man. That’s not a stand your own ground…And, I think you’re going to find the law, as interpreted normally it doesn’t apply to this case.” Meanwhile, Obama, a Harvard-trained constitutional lawyer, our first African-American President remained political, noncommittal, and silent on the real issue at hand—the violation of Trayvon Martin’s human and civil rights.

George Zimmerman was told by the Sanford police to stand down and to stay in his apartment, and that they would handle the situation. The second he crossed the threshold of his apartment door he became the aggressor and a terrorist. But, as was the case with Taney’s 1857 racist ruling, Trayvon had no rights that Zimmerman was “bound to respect.” Subsequently, he shot Trayvon, an unarmed child.President Obama missed an opportunity to become a moral leader, as well as a political leader. Remember, not long ago, we were considered property like a horse, chair, or car. If we are ever to be a free and sovereign people, we must evaluate our experiences correctly and hold America accountable for their inhumanity toward us and our ancestors. And, we must hold our President accountable for failing to provide the appropriate leadership on such an important issue.

President Barack Obama hugging a child on the campaign trail. AP

If we as Black men in particular and society in general can not or will not stand up for our Black children, then the world should look at us with both pity and disdain.

If the price of being afforded all of the rights and privileges of American citizenship claims, is that we lie and deny the cruelty of America with its documented legacy of lynching or its “Red Record” as Ms Wells called it, then the price of the admission ticket is too damned high.

I for one am not willing to pay!


Stanford Lewis is Professor of Old Testament at the Tennessee School of Religion in Memphis, Tennessee, United States.  He is a graduate of Fisk University, Cornell University, and Harvard Divinity School.

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