tragic killing of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla., has provoked
national outrage and is also the subject of a Justice Department probe.
This is a far different response from the virulent racist America of a
century ago, when white America and Washington were indifferent to such
episodes. The outrage sweeping the country today over the young man's
slaying suggests something very important has changed for the better.
in the 1920s, when the Ku Klux Klan was at the pinnacle of its sadistic
influence, as many as 1,000 lynchings of black men took place in a
typical year and any national outcries against them were muted. Klansmen
could murder in cold blood and go to work the next morning as if
nothing had happened. White Americans, generally, did not get upset over
lynchings. Ku Klux Klan members often held posts of influence in their
communities, particularly in the South. The murdered blacks had few, if
any, allies in the white communities. Presidents such as Woodrow Wilson
were themselves racist.
far from where Trayvon Martin was shot down, on Christmas Eve, 1951,
the NAACP's Rev. Harry T. Moore and his wife were murdered by KKK
dynamiters with a bomb planted under their bedroom. I remember walking
in a small, largely African-American protest march in Rev. Moore's
memory the following New Year's Day through the streets of downtown
Miami. Perhaps there were some sympathetic white onlookers, but I do not
four years later, though, the murder of 14-year-old Chicagoan Emmett
Till in Money, Miss., for allegedly whistling at a white woman, created
huge street demonstrations on Chicago's South Side. Listening to the
orators addressing the crowds, I had the welcome feeling the Black
community, at the least, was not going to stand for it any more. Too
many Black veterans were asking, "What did we fight for to be treated
this way?" The outrage was fierce as Till's killers were acquitted of
his torture and murder. Till's Mother insisted on an open casket funeral
so the public could witness how the killers had brutalized her son.
Protected by laws against double jeopardy, after their acquittal, the
killers casually admitted their guilt and walked free.
has been said that Till's murder was the spark that ignited the civil
rights movement. In that struggle, still unfinished, the introduction of
the non-violent response by Rev. Martin Luther King created vast
sympathy for oppressed Black citizens. The Montgomery bus boycott
impressed the nation with their courage and determination and their
struggle for equal rights and opportunities. By 1963, the climate had so
changed that King's "I Have a Dream" speech at the Lincoln Memorial
generated an overwhelming positive national response.
this remarkable address, the civil rights cause accelerated rapidly.
The continued sacrifices of both Blacks and whites alike had put a large
segment of America's white population on the side of social justice. In
June, 1966, when James Meredith was shot down in Mississippi, the
shooter was apprehended within minutes by the local sheriff and put on
trial and convicted -- an outcome that would have been unthinkable a
day after the shooting, in my capacity as Meredith's press coordinator,
I told an NBC "Today Show" audience that his several companions planned
to finish his March Against Fear, and invited people of good will to
join us. Thousands from all races responded over the next few weeks so
that the renewed march became, literally, a turning point and victory
celebration over Jim Crow in Mississippi. Voting rolls were opened to
Blacks and we received the support of many white Mississippi residents
who had been waiting for an opportunity to step forward and speak up for
racial equality but had been afraid to do so.
spite of all the civil rights movement has achieved, a descriptive term
that can still be applied to Black communities today, unfortunately,
remains "plight." The statistics on Black-white disparities in income,
housing, justice, and education remain profound.
after administration, including the present one, has failed to make
amends for what is now four centuries of historic racism. President
Obama has shown more interest in pursuing the foreign wars of his
predecessor than in spending the trillions of dollars wasted on those
wars to promote the general welfare of Americans. This includes the need
to level the playing field for African-Americans, by supporting decent
housing, crime reduction and penal reform, full employment, job
training, quality education, leveling the playing field for unions, and
more job opportunities created by employers, state governments and
The battle is ongoing. One affirmative step would be to
teach basic non-violence to every child in every school in America.
Another would be entrepreneurial teaching (self-reliance and business
acumen) starting in grade school. Trevon Martin's death should serve to
remind us of the long road that has already been traveled just as it
informs us of how far we as a nation have to go.
Sherwood Ross worked as a reporter for the Chicago Daily News and contributed a regular "Workplace" column for Reuters. He has contributed to national magazines and hosted a talk show on WOL, Washington, D.C. In the Sixties he was active as public (more...