Point of View Columns

A Eulogy for Julian Bond and a Generation

The recent death of Julian Bond caused a righteous outpouring of honor and respect for a man who dedicated his life to human dignity and liberation. History provides some context for the courage and passion that he brought to a struggle that benefitted not only black Americans, but all Americans.

Julian Bond was born in 1940 and during the first ten years of his life over thirty black Americans would be lynched in this country. In the year that he was born Franklin Delano Roosevelt was president and during his entire thirteen year term in office he never supported a single anti-lynching bill that was proposed in Congress. And no anti-lynching bill has ever been passed.

The America into which Julian Bond was born was covered with the slime and ooze of sixty four years of legalized and institutionalized racism, segregation and bigotry, the horrid aftermath of Reconstruction. Julian Bond did not read about black and white water fountains, he drank from the black fountains. He did not hear stories about segregated schools, pools, universities and hotels – he attended those schools, swam in those pools only on “Negro days”, could not aspire to attend the public universities in the South and, if the opportunity had arisen, he could only stay in “Negro hotels”.

In 1951 when Julian Bond was eleven years old, Harry T. Moore, the head of the Brevard County (Florida) NAACP and leader of a black voter registration drive, was assassinated by the local sheriff. Harry T. Moore is a footnote to a footnote in the history of the civil rights movement and that sheriff never served a day in prison.

When Julian Bond was fourteen the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision by the Supreme Court declared that racially segregated public schools were unconstitutional. In 1955 when Julian Bond was fifteen Emmett Till was tortured and lynched in Mississippi, ostensibly for the unforgivable crime of whistling at a white woman.

Two years later, in 1957 when he was seventeen, Julian Bond watched with the rest of the country, indeed the rest of the world, when the National Guard and the 101st Airborne Division of the United States Army were needed to guarantee the safety of nine black children whose parents had the temerity to want their children to go to a quality school in Little Rock, Arkansas that had been all white.

This was the America in which Julian Bond and all black Americans lived when he enrolled at Morehouse College soon thereafter. And it was in this cauldron of bubbling racist toil and trouble that he became one of the founding members of the SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee). Looking through the cloudy lens of the past it is difficult to comprehend the courage that Julian Bond, James Lewis, Stokely Carmichael possessed to even try to organize resistance to a brutal and malevolent regime that valued racism and racists practices over the lives of all black men, women and children.

Julian Bond is well remembered for his role as a member of the Georgia State Legislature, Chairman of the Board of the NAACP as well as being a co-founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center. And well should he be remembered for these and his many other good deeds.

And, as we remember Julian Bond, we should take a moment to understand and comprehend the force and power and beauty and courage of his generation who confronted White Power when it was the law – and in a very real way prevailed.

Standard
Point of View Columns

Lessons from the Zimmerman Trial

There is something about America and trials and court decisions. The 1733 trial of Peter Zenger in New York City laid the foundation for the First Amendment. The Dred Scott decision in 1857 shamefully affirmed the legitimacy of slavery in this country. The Brown v. Board of Education case in 1954 began to finally dismantle the infrastructure of institutionalized racism in this country.

There have been many “trials of the century” – Sacco-Vanzetti, the Scopes “monkey” trial, the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg – but there was something about the murder trial of O.J. Simpson which mixed a rich combination of circus plus drama plus the most prodigious exploitation of racial taboos since the heyday of the Ku Klux Klan. That O.J. Simpson was acquitted of killing a blonde white woman has struck many white Americans as the greatest miscarriage of justice in the history of the planet.

This bit of retrospective is important in looking at the Zimmerman trial because even though a black man is not on trial, the defendant’s perception of black men is a central factor in this case. Unlike the O.J. Simpson case the Zimmerman case is not a whodunit. It is clear and freely admitted that George Zimmerman intentionally fired the fatal shot that killed Trayvon Martin.

The question in the Zimmerman case is whether the defendant had the legal right to kill Trayvon Martin. The defense has argued that his fear and mistrust of a “suspicious” black person caused him to confront the murder victim. The defense has further argued that once he engaged in a confrontation with Trayvon Martin he had a right to kill him since he was in fear of his life.

It is important to note that in the South it was legally impossible for a white man to be convicted of killing a black man until 1865. After that it was virtually impossible for a white man to be convicted of killing a black man and the number of exceptions to this brutal rule would not take up much space in this column.

The Zimmerman case must be seen within this historical context – in the South white men (including Latino white men) have had an historical right to kill black men even if they are the aggressors, the instigators or even the terrorists (see the Ku Klux Klan). The fear of inherent blood lust that resides in every black man has been seen as sufficient justification for killing black men who talked back to a white man, looked askance at a white man or struck a white man.

Seen within this context, it is understandable how the local police did not even arrest George Zimmerman at the time of the murder. It is understandable how the laws and public perception work in another of the benighted former Confederate States so that the killing of a young black man is considered justifiable simply because the shooter said so.

The toxicity of this situation is compounded by the almost ubiquitous presence of guns in America and in Florida in particular. Combined with the “Stand Your Ground” law which no longer requires individuals to try to avoid confrontation, it is perfectly understandable how Trayvon Martin was killed and why George Zimmerman shot him. And it is perfectly clear that if there was no gun Trayvon Martin would still be alive as it is doubtful that George Zimmerman would have ever approached him in the first place.

The only remaining question is whether the jury – a six member panel comprised of six women, five of whom are white – will somehow find George Zimmerman to have some responsibility for the death of Trayvon Martin. It is hard to believe that the devaluation of the lives of black men, a tradition that dates back to slavery, still slithers through the subconscious minds of too many white Americans.

For those who would argue against this assessment consider the Martin-Zimmerman fact pattern and reverse the racial identity of the actors. Does anyone doubt that the “black” George Zimmerman would have been arrested for killing the “white” Trayvon Martin?

The answer may be the harshest lesson that we learn from the George Zimmerman trial.

Standard