John Feehery: Speaking Engagements


Not a Trivial Moment

Posted on March 24, 2012

The Trayvon Martin incident is no trivial moment in American history.

Mr. Martin was gunned down by George Zimmerman in a Sanford, Florida gated community. Zimmerman says he was defending himself. Civil rights leaders and the Martin family believe it was murder.

The Sanford Police Department doesn’t quite know what to believe, and so far, has refused to arrest Zimmerman.

Upon this one deadly confrontation, America’s racial past and future collapse.

Will we ever live in a post-racial society or must we continue to harbor resentments and fears that poison our respective outlooks on our society?

I was watching a documentary the other night on PBS about Reconstruction in the old South.

For a brief moment in time, things improved for blacks in the South after the Civil War. African-Americans were allowed to vote, and several were elected to political office, including the United States Senate.

But that period of Radical Reconstruction wouldn’t last long. Rutherford B. Hayes agreed to pull out all Federal Troops in exchange for being awarded the election of 1876, and pretty soon, the KKK and its supporters were running the South.

That meant that it became very dangerous to be a black man in Dixie, especially a black man who wanted to read, write or work an honest job.

Quite often, in the years following the Federal pullout, black men would be accused of crimes that they didn’t commit, convicted in a Kangaroo court, and sent to prison.

But prisons back then weren’t the prison of today (more on that later). More likely, they were work camps, where the prisoners were hired out to local business owners who needed hard labor done. In this way, the South reconstituted slavery, by other means.

(As a side note, the prison industry in this country is now thriving. You would shocked to learn how many military uniforms and license plates are being made by essentially modern day slave labor, mostly by convicts who are in the pookie for drug crimes).

No wonder so many blacks ended up migrating North, stopping in Memphis on occasion, but usually ending up in Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, New York and Washington D.C.

There, they found jobs and the absence of pernicious Jim Crow laws. Not to say that they didn’t face discrimination and prejudice, because they did, and that kind of racism could be every bit as brutal as what they found in the old South.

But just as the blacks moved to the cities, it became fashionable for whites to move the suburbs, and the especially in the 1950s and 1960s, white flight out of the cities and away from the new migrants from Dixie became the dominant theme.

As more blacks moved up North to the big cities, more whites moved out of the big cities and into the suburbs. And as the whites moved out, so did many of the manufacturing jobs, leaving the black underclass without many opportunities.

The civil rights movement galvanized the country by making the Federal government reassert itself in old Dixie, guaranteeing voting rights for those black citizens who had the fortitude to stay, and ending a shameful period of discrimination, murder, intimidation and apartheid in that part of the country.

Martin Luther King tried to bring the same tactics of protest to the city of Chicago, by demanded that Mayor Daley end discrimination in housing policies. But many of Mayor Daley’s white constituents left the city rather than be forced to live with African-Americans.

White flight led to urban blight. New York, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland and D.C. became war zones, as crime skyrocketed, murders became commonplace, and drugs proliferated. Antagonism between the police force (which tended to be dominated by Irish Catholics) and the black community grew more and more intense.

Rudy Giuliani helped turn around New York by being tough on crime, and often that meant by going after the black drug gangs that dominated the urban criminal landscape. He shrugged off accusations of being a racist and backed up the cops who prosecuted the criminal elements. Was there an element of racial profiling in how the Mayor and his team did their jobs? Sure, but it worked.

So what does this brief history of America have to do with Trayvon Martin?


Civil rights leaders like Al Sharpton see this Martin incident as indicative of a racist society sprung from the Reconstruction era, when innocent black men were killed for no other reason than wanting to make a better life for their families.

They see the reaction of the Sanford Police Department as typical of a Southern jurisdiction that cares little about real justice and even less about the loss of a black teenager.

My guess is that the Sanford Police Department sees it a bit differently. Because Florida has a unique “stand your ground “ law and because there was some evidence that Zimmerman had a physical confrontation with Martin, they probably didn’t think they had enough evidence to prosecute.

Zimmerman is not your typical white cracker. He is half-Hispanic, and he says that he has black family members. As a former victim of crime, he probably was probably overly sensitive to the criminal possibilities of Mr. Martin, and he was undoubtedly influenced by Mr. Martin’s apparel (a hoodie). His family says that he was no racist, but we can all assume that if Mr. Martin were a white kid wearing a hoodie, that we wouldn’t be talking about this incident today, because there would have been no incident.

Was Mr. Zimmerman wrong for stalking Mr. Martin? Well, since the Police Dispatcher he called told him to back off, that is undoubtedly true. Should Mr. Zimmerman have had the ability to pack a piece? I don’t know, but the evidence seems to be pretty solid that he shouldn’t have had one, since he seems like a real dim bulb.

In America today, we have a pecking order when it comes to murder. If a black person kills another black person, everyone assumes that it has something to do with drugs and nobody really cares. If a white person kills a white person, then it is assumed that it is a domestic dispute, and nobody really cares.

But if a white person kills a black person or a black person kills a white person, then it must be evidence that the world is going to collapse in racial hatred and a race war. Any type of killing between the races immediately brings national attention.

I am constantly astounded by how little the media covers the wholesale slaughter that occurs every day in the streets of our big cities. Black kids are murdering black kids on a fairly consistent basis, and as far as I can tell, neither President Obama nor Al Sharpton says much about it. I wish they would. Because if African-American teenagers continue to kill each other as often as they do, people from other races will continue to look at all black men with a certain amount of fear, the kind of fear that leads to George Zimmerman killing Trayvon Martin.

A good friend of mine (who happens to be black) said that when he was a kid, his dad would teach him how to act around the police, just to make sure that they wouldn’t mistakenly shoot him. I find that to be a profoundly sad indictment of our society.

And that is the essential difference in how white kids and black kids are raised. A young black man has to be trained how to act around cops so that he won’t get shot by them. White kids don’t have those apprehensions about the police.

I think President Obama said a lot when he said that if he had a boy, that boy would have looked like Trayvon Martin. You can sense the anguish that he feels, not only the anguish of a father, but the anguish a black man who has been elected to lead a country with such a complicated racial history. How do you strike the right tone when your strongest supporters don’t trust the system that has systematically discriminated against them since the beginning but when that same discriminatory system has delivered you to its highest office?

I guess what you say is that if you had a boy, he would have looked a lot like Trayvon Martin. That’s all you really need to say.

But in our media universe, that won't be the last thing said. It wouldn’t be a full scale racial controversy unless both Al Sharpton and Newt Gingrich weigh in. Can Rush Limbaugh and Bill Maher be far behind?

The Trayvon Martin incident is not a trivial moment in our nation’s history. I hope we can rise to the challenge together and not descend into a familiar pattern of recrimination and hatred.

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