On Aug. 28, leaders from across the nation will arrive in Washington to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Though this historic demonstration symbolizes the triumphs of the Civil Rights Movement, recent events — notably the verdict of State of Florida v. George Zimmerman — reveal that the American struggle against racism and discrimination is far from over.
For many people of color in the United States, we will always remember exactly where we were the night George Zimmerman’s acquittal was announced. We will also remember how it felt to experience the profound disappointment that a black life could be swiftly taken, while a known killer walks free.
I was at home, in Boston, working on my dissertation when I received the news alert on my smartphone. As I read this anachronistic storyline on my piece of 21st-century technology, I felt a visceral and heavy sense of disappointment for the Martin family, our legal system and the future of this country. I also experienced a fresh dose of fear for all of our brothers, sons, nephews and fathers who happen to have skin of a darker hue.
On July 13, the night of the verdict, my brother, a young black man, was working an evening shift at his job as a server in a popular restaurant in an upper middle class suburb in Broward County. As the broadcast of the jury’s decision approached, many guests at the restaurant requested to be seated closer to the television. When the decision finally arrived, and the not-guilty verdict was read, most of the white patrons at the tables my brother served broke into applause.
Later that night, when my brother recounted this to me, I was heartbroken. It hurt to imagine my brother in that bustling restaurant milieu, having to both hold in his shock and disappointment at the verdict, while also struggling to make sense of his patrons’ reactions. It hurt to imagine him juggling the task of performing his job with dignity and dealing with the apparent reality that a young black man’s death was a cause for celebration for some. It was perhaps most painful to imagine that my brother may have felt that his own life was also dispensable in the eyes of the guests whose dinner and drinks he served.
My heart sank again on the night of Tuesday, July 23, when my brother told me about another incident in our neighborhood. He was out with work colleagues at a local bar when another patron at the bar insulted him in the midst of what started as a friendly conversation. The man called him “Trayvon,” and followed him around the bar, laughing. To make matters worse, the man was known to be an undercover cop.
My brother was shaken up. He felt powerless. But rather than allow the situation to escalate, he walked away from the obviously intoxicated man, and eventually reported him to the bar management.
Although he recounted this to me by text message as it was happening, I, too, felt powerless. I was also overcome with a profound fear for my brother’s safety.
After all, Trayvon Martin is, tragically, no longer with us. Because of the circumstances of his death, one can infer that any stranger calling a young black man “Trayvon” in this climate is, in effect, threatening his life (not to mention, implying that he could get way with the murder). The fact that this racially coded threat came from a member of law enforcement was even more jarring and frightening.
Now, I recognize that many Americans see no relevance for race to be featured in discussions of the Zimmerman trial. But certainly, to the officer who harassed my brother that night, the racial connection was plain as day. If it wasn’t, what would provoke him to call my brother — who he does not know and who bears no resemblance to Martin beyond the color of his skin — “Trayvon”? The fact that a young person’s murder is being used as a new brand of racial slur confirms Martin Luther King Jr.’s cautious prediction that “Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning.”
Fifty years after the March on Washington, people of color still seek assurances that our lives are not dispensable in the eyes of neighbors, or the justice system. We need to know that the old Jim Crow-era practice of violence and intimidation directed at blacks and committed with impunity is not here to stay, and that justice and protection for individuals of all races will ultimately prevail.
Alecia McGregor, born and raised in Florida, is a Ph.D. candidate in Health Policy at Harvard University.