MLK, Trayvon Martin and Tom Robinson: three black men, three eras, same fate

Riots broke out after Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination on April 4, 1968—44 years ago today. Murder, arson and general mayhem broke out in cities across the country as the nation tried to understand how our leading civil rights leader, a pillar of non-violence, could have been struck down in such a brutal manner. Within a week, 39 people were dead, 34 of them African-American. Twenty-five of them were shot, 11 by police officers. It wasn’t just King who died that day in April; a piece of our collective hope did, too.

The massive outrage of 1968 proved people knew then what almost everyone still knows now. Even if conspiracy theories are to be believed, and it was the government, rather than known segregationist James Earl Ray who wanted the 39 year-old activist dead, race absolutely played a role: the minister represented an increasingly powerful movement, a danger to the status quo and white man’s privilege. His death, whoever was involved believed, would suppress civil rights. Or at least social upheaval. The opposite was true: the civil rights movement marched on after King’s assassination. Today, thanks to those efforts, disparate American populations celebrate more rights than they did those four decades ago. Yet the last few weeks have taught us those battles were not quite enough.

We still don’t know why George Zimmerman followed and subsequently shot 17-year old Trayvon Martin. We do know, however, that of the seven 911 calls Zimmerman made over the course of his neighborhood watch “career” to report suspicious people, five were about African-American men, including Martin. And there may even be more.

It’s worth noting that at no time did Zimmerman offer their race — he was prompted by 911 dispatchers — but the fact of the matter is that he found black men more suspicious than any other potential strangers, so it’s a logical conclusion that Martin’s skin tone was an essential element of the fateful events that led to Martin’s death. Or at least one worth considering, and discussing.

As the nation struggles to understand that hazy gray killing, USA Network announced yesterday that President Obama, our first black president, will be introducing a special 50th anniversary airing of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” the classic Depression-era story of white lawyer Atticus Finch defending a black man, Tom Robinson, falsely accused of raping a white woman. He’s unsuccessful. After being found guilty, Robinson tries to escape. He’s shot 17 times by the guards. For him, as for other black people, there was no escape from racial bias and presumption of guilt or wrong-doing. This fictional man’s life and death are all too real for millions of Americans.

Through these three tales we see two common threads: racism and gun violence. They are not mutually exclusive. While surely we would have less gun deaths (the majority of which are African-Americans) if we restrict gun access, as we did after King’s death, we would also have less gun deaths — and homicides in general — if we took the non-violent civil rights leader’s words to heart: “Nonviolence means avoiding not only external physical violence but also internal violence of spirit. You not only refuse to shoot a man, but you refuse to hate him.”

Violence and hatred go hand-in-hand. One cannot be eliminated without the other, and so long as they work in tandem, King’s dream will be deferred. Thankfully Trayvon Martin’s killing hasn’t sparked the riots the nation saw after King’s assassination, but the backdrop remains the same. Maybe this time, so many years and so many pointless deaths later, we’ll actually learn something, and find reason to hope for a more color blind society after all.