Trayvon Martin On My Mind: As Dr. King Asked Where Do We Go From Here?


Trayvon Martin — it wasn’t meant to be this way any longer

[Honoring Dr. King’s Legacy]

Fifty years have come and gone since the 1963 March on Washington and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s soulful rendition of “I Have a Dream” speech.

In those 50 years much has changed. The pomp and circumstance celebrating the 50th anniversary commemoration proclaimed that “freedom has rung” but the dream is long-suffering.

Still, too much, uncannily echoes the never-ending same. Trayvon Martin’s menacing death, for instance, dampens any premature elation about the fulfillment of Dr. King’s dream in America.

Far often, it’s cherished as a dream deferred.

The children of the darker hue are still being judged by the color of their skin and their hooded appearance rather than the content of their character. On the night of February 26, 2012, in Sanford, Florida, Martin was stalked and killed by the neighborhood watch patroller, George Zimmerman.

From all accounts, because Martin didn’t look like he “belonged” to that gated community based on his black skin and baggy clothing — and the fact that he was a teen male–  his presence tagged him as “suspicious”, and in Zimmerman’s eyes, he posed an imminent threat.

As best we can understand the thrice-told-tale, a scuffle ensued; Zimmerman walked away as if unfazed by the callous kill. Martin lay shot-dead.

The color of his skin sentenced him to a senseless execution while exercising one of his most basic civil liberties—to walk freely and unaccosted.

His “wrongful” death— murdered is what many opine—resurrected haunting memories in the Black community of what was thought as a bygone era, that of backwood murders of the likes of 14-year-old Emmett Till.

Till was Jim Crow lynched for an uncertain “crime” in the 1950s segregated south, where a Black man, woman, or child had no human rights heeded by White society; or civil rights protected by the law.

Fifty years later, like all of King’s children, Trayvon Martin had every right to expect a more perfect Union: that his native birth would guarantee him the citizenship right denied his elder generation; that he merited equal protection under the law regardless of race, color or creed, and that his life chances favored him not dying a back alley, cold-blooded racial kill.

Dr. King had already paid the ultimate price with his life in his quest to transform a segregated Union of Blacks and Whites into a beloved community, a nation of equals.

Kin begs any term of endearment, in my mind. America was Trayvon’s kin also. As King trumpeted on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, in the America he envisioned “Little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.” Sadly, America’s memory is short-lived when it comes to the darker brother.

The civil unrest kindled after Martin’s death is that his blood cried out for mercy, for justice; cried out for the dream that America had transformed, as Dr. King had hoped, into a more redemptive society.

This native son was a legitimate heir to all the inalienable rights and privileges that the promissory note of citizenship guaranteed. However, with the one shot that resounded from Zimmerman’s gun, Martin was dead. Eventually, Zimmerman was placed on trial; so too were some of the great democratic ideals exhorted by Dr. King.

It’s fair to say that the trial was more than a verdict on whether Zimmerman had the license to kill. It delivered a truth-telling moment about the backsliding state of race relations in this nation.

There has been a breach of trust when it comes to the 1963 dream charged into America’s care. How else can it be when the prison industrial complex prowls relentlessly for Black youth; and the intersection of race and poverty limits life choices?

How else can it be when the Supreme Court guts the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and when racial politics leads to votes and Congressional policies that are against the interest of Black and brown people?

So America is on the wrong side of the history of equality, and complicit in the death of Trayvon Martin. For Dr. King, the race question was inherently a moral commentary on the state of the soul of this nation.

After these difficult decades of a trenchant struggle, “still we are not saved,” as the late civil rights scholar and attorney Derrick Bell prophesied that unwanted and painful truth.

The vaults of justice appear just as bankrupt as they were when Dr. King first cried aloud his hope for a new day in the body politic of this nation. Even with the twice swearing in of the nation’s first Black president, Barack Obama, this nation is a far cry from the post-racial society once eagerly heralded.

Holding the dialectical tension of Dr. King’s transcendent twentieth century dream with the seeming intransigence of racial bias in America, where do we go from here?

We cannot give in to a paralyzing despair and fail to deliver on Dr. King’s dream. We cannot fail another young man like Trayvon Martin. His generation must be given a reason to dream again.

What we can take away from this is that the King Holiday is a moral barometer, this nation’s “soul force,” guiding and chastening our footsteps on how far we have come and how much more we must persevere to realize Dr. King’s all-encompassing justice-and-equality for all vision.

The King Holiday anticipates the “sacred obligation” that America was called upon to fulfill 50 years ago — which is, to “rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’”

Paraphrased for this generation, it would read that:

Women’s reproductive rights are secured. Immigration reform has received redress.

The breaches in the social safety net are mended.

Obamacare reforms deliver health-care justice for all.

The minimum-wage increase is a right, not a fight.

The lives of young Black and Brown men matter enough to be placed among the national priorities.

The unearned suffering and death of a Trayvon Martin will be redeemed.

That is the long dusty road of protest activism ahead of us if we are to keep the holiday dream fresh and a living reality.


Dr. Sallie M. Cuffee, Medgar Evers College

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