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The black quest for justice and innocence

By Brenda Stevenson


Those who followed the Trayvon Martin case this summer did so not just because of the conflicting details of the shooting deaths of these two unarmed black youth, but because these cases, like too many others, have played out in our public consciousness as markers of American justice. Does “liberty and justice for all” actually exist; or are these words from our Pledge of Allegiance just part of the grand American narrative that is more myth than reality?

Justice was the first ideal put forth in the Preamble to our Constitution as one that would lead to a “more perfect nation” and was later codified in the 14th amendment. Thomas Jefferson was clear about the essential nature of “justice” in the new nation, writing in 1807 that “An equal application of law to every condition of man is fundamental,” and in 1816 that “The most sacred of the duties of a government [is] to do equal and impartial justice to all its citizens.” George Washington agreed that the administration of justice is the “firmest pillar of government.” Although the implementation of justice has had a worrisome history in this nation, the people’s belief that justice is a fundamental right of everyone on American soil is rock solid. Within the African American community as well as other communities of color and varied ethnicities, however, the reality of justice as applied by local, state, and even federal courts can prove elusive.

It should not have come as any surprise then that a significant fear voiced in the black community over the many months since Trayvon Martin died is that George Zimmerman trial would demonstrate, once again, that African Americans are not equal before the law. Even more alarming, it demonstrates that black children—the heart of every family and community—are not exempt from a legacy of injustice that has plagued African Americans across the generations. The names of so many wrongfully killed and denied justice fill the communal memory, undermining black confidence in the criminal justice system. Seventeen-year-old Eugene Williams drowned on 27 July 1919 in Chicago after whites assaulted him with rocks and police charged an innocent black man. Fourteen-year-old Emmett Till was tortured, murdered, and mutilated in Mississippi in 1955. Double jeopardy protected his confessed murderers. An NYPD lieutenant shot and killed 15-year-old James Powell in 1964, allegedly for lunging at him with a knife that was never found. A white policeman mistook 16-year-old Matthew Johnson for a car thief and killed him in 1966 in San Francisco. A Korean shopkeeper shot 15-year-old Latasha Harlins in the back of the head in South Central Los Angeles in 1991, and was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter but released with no jail time by the judge. The list could go on and on. 

Street rally in New York City, October 11, 1955, under joint sponsorship of NAACP and District 65, Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Workers Union in protest of slaying of Emmett Till (Library of Congress). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Street rally in New York City, October 11, 1955, under joint sponsorship of NAACP and District 65, Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Workers Union in protest of slaying of Emmett Till (Library of Congress). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Couple this historical narrative, one that reaches back to the slave era, with past and current statistics — extremely high black juvenile incarceration rates (five times that of whites); sentencing differentials across color and class lines; the disproportionate number of black children tried and sentenced as adults (more than 50% of affected juveniles); the lop-sided school suspension rates for blacks (3.5 times that of whites); the larger proportion of black defendants who have to rely on public defenders; the extremely small number of black judges (about 6% on federal and state benches) — and it is clear why African Americans found it hard to believe that the truth would be found and justice rendered in Florida v. Zimmerman.

Africans Americans realize that that their children rarely carry the mantle of “innocence” or vulnerability that the public willingly bestows on other youth. They are more likely to be considered the criminal not the victim, even when they are left lying in a pool of blood and the other person is able to walk away. Black male and female teens are particularly bundled together in the myth of the urban black thug or gang banger. What black teen is ever deemed an innocent victim? When Soon Ja Du was found guilty of murdering Latasha Harlins, for example, the judge made it clear in her sentencing statement that it was Du, and not Latasha, who had been the vulnerable victim, and that Latasha — if she had lived — probably would be before the court on an assault charge. Likewise, George Zimmerman was found not guilty of the murder of Trayvon Martin because the jury believed that Zimmerman reasonably feared that an unarmed Trayvon would kill him.

Given the outcome of the Zimmerman case and countless others, many black parents are convinced that the criminal justice system is stacked against their children. The history of legal neglect and outright abuse is too long and deep. The image of black boys and girls as violent, rather than sweet, smart, and brimming with promise too palpable. Indeed, given this centuries-old cruel legacy, it is difficult to even imagine that a conviction of Zimmerman, or other similar acts of “justice” could recreate the public’s image of a black girl or boy as an innocent, vulnerable child — or ignite the black community’s trust in the nation’s law enforcement and court systems.

Brenda Stevenson is Professor of History at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her books include The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins: Justice, Gender, and the Origins of the LA Riots; The Journals of Charlotte Forten Grimke; and Life in Black and White: Family and Community in the Slave South, selected as an Outstanding Book by the Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Human Rights in North America.

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One Response to “The black quest for justice and innocence”
  1. Dear Ms. Stevens,

    You stated, “It should not have come as any surprise then that a significant fear voiced in the black community over the many months since Trayvon Martin died is that George Zimmerman trial would demonstrate, once again, that African Americans are not equal before the law.” The sad part about this story is a 17 year old is dead no matter what race he was but even sadder is how the media edited the audio to make it sound like Mr. Zimmerman was a racist; it showed an 11 year old Mr. Martin compared to Mr. Zimmerman in a jail suit, and it this case to push an agenda and try to get ratings on the back of this dead child.

    The media tried to make it seem like Trayvon Martin was an innocent alter boy but he wasn’t but we will discuss that in a minute. Mr. Martin, a football player, fighting Mr. Zimmerman, a blob, would be like Michael Moore fighting Will Smith, will smith would kick his but. The facts showed and didn’t show certain things; it did show Mr. Martin on top, it did show he knuckles cut up and he had no other marks other then the bullet wound. Mr. Zimmerman had cuts about his whole head with no marks on his knuckles. Both had the right to be on the street in the public in or out of their house or car. What we don’t know is why Mr. Martin was weaving in between the houses, it could be he was casing the places or just trying to get out of the rain; we don’t know why when he had a chance he didn’t run from Mr. Zimmerman instead of trying to beat his but MMA style. Why didn’t Mr. Zimmerman wait for the police and why didn’t he shoot his in the leg (even though he would probably been sued in our “sue happy culture” and that is why you’re taught not to for that reason). You, I, and everyone else in America are innocent until proven guilty beyond a doubt, there was plenty of doubt.

    You spoke of, “A Korean shopkeeper shot 15-year-old in the back of the head in South Central Los Angeles in 1991, and was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter but released with no jail time by the judge.” Let’s put it in the right context; the whole truth is the stores videotape showed that Latasha Harlins and friends’ attacking the store owner, she had turned away from a scuffle with a Korean grocer when the she was shot in the back of the head. If the scuffle was over then the Korean man should have went to jail but this happened during the Rodney King Riots and people were burning down everyone’s businesses; context does make a difference. Do you remember the name Reginald Denny? He was the truck driver who was stopped and beaten within an inch of his life at the same time Latasha Harlins was shot. The good part about this story was the local African American people not evolved in the riot intervened and saved his life.

    Here is a question for you, when they arrested Mr. Simpson and searched his vehicle, they found Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman blood in his bronco which was admitted into evidence yet he was found not guilty. He later wrote a book “If I Did It” which detailed exactly how it the murder was committed. Was this a travesty of justice? If you wanted to pick a case you should have picked the Darius Simmons case where John Spooner shot him in front of his mother. This was a travesty and Mr. Spooner was found guilty.

    In this nation we have got to get off these race games, race baiting, and get to treating each other with respect. If we are a juror we need to look at the evidence no matter the race of the victim or perpetrator and come to a just ending. As long as you have people crying wolf like in the Duke Lacrosse Team rape case, then when a true travesty comes up, no one will listen. Did you hear about the Mona Nelson case where she killed Jonathan Foster? Of course not, the media is bias on their reporting. Any child no matter the color of their skin should have the same uproar when they are murdered; it doesn’t happen.

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