Forget the Old South: Trayvon Martin Was No Emmett Till

By: Michael Barone | Posted: August 3, 2013 3:55 AM
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Why are so many people so desperate to hold onto the idea that America is as racist as it has ever been? The phenomenon is apparent in much of the commentary on the George Zimmerman case.

Facts were blithely ignored -- the fact that Zimmerman is Hispanic, not white, by current standards; the evidence that he and not his victim, Trayvon Martin, was pummeled and wounded; the failure to find any hint of anti-black bias in Zimmerman's past.

Instead there was a desperate longing to see this unhappy incident as a case of a white racist hunting down and murdering an innocent black -- with a view to establishing that this kind of thing happens all the time.

It isn't. Yes, young black men are homicide victims in large and tragic numbers. But the perpetrators are almost always other young black men, as in President Obama's hometown of Chicago, where almost every weekend there are multiple such murders.

Nevertheless, journalism is full of opinion articles, many written by people who should know better, likening the death of Trayvon Martin to the murder of Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955.

Till was a 14-year-old black boy raised in Chicago who, on a summer trip to his native Mississippi, "wolf-whistled" at a white woman. Two white men abducted and brutally murdered him.

They were tried, and the all-white jury acquitted them after deliberating 67 minutes. Months later, the defendants told Look magazine's William Bradford Huie that they had indeed killed the young man.

The Emmett Till case attracted national attention, with heavy media coverage. Rep. Charles Diggs, one of three blacks in Congress, attended the trial. National magazines ran pictures of the grinning defendants.

In the process, Northerners were forced to confront the brutality with which white Southerners enforced the subjection of blacks.

This went beyond the laws requiring segregated schools, buses and drinking fountains. Also in place was an unwritten code of behavior, breach of which could result in violent retaliation.

Blacks were called by their first names and could approach whites' houses only by the back door, and black men could never, never ogle white women. This was unknown to most Northerners. As I explain in my forthcoming book, "Shaping Our Nation: How Surges of Migration Transformed America and Its Politics," there was almost no migration between South and North in the years between the Civil War and World War II.

Southern mores were so unknown in the North that Yale psychologist John Dollard's 1937 book "Caste and Class in a Southern Town," based on five months' field work in Indianola, Miss., was hailed as a great revelation, akin to Margaret Mead's writing on Samoa.

Yet everything in it was common knowledge for every 10-year-old, black or white, in Indianola.

The great genius of the civil rights movement was to make Northerners face the reality -- and the violence -- of the segregation system. The Emmett Till case was one of the first incidents that forced them to do so. It was followed a year later by Rosa Parks' refusal to move to the back of the bus in 1955 and Martin Luther King's resulting Montgomery bus boycott.

It is sometimes said that laws cannot change customs. But the Civil Rights Act of 1964, banning racial discrimination in hiring and public accommodations, did in fact change behavior in the South. It not only ended legally enforced segregation but effectively ended the unwritten code of black subjugation.

Which is to say that the America of our time -- the America of Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman -- is hugely different from and hugely better than the America of Emmett Till.

Back in the 1950s, most Americans -- not just in the South but across the nation -- opposed interracial marriages. As blacks were migrating in large numbers to Northern cities, whites moved out of neighborhoods when they moved in.

Today things are different. Our president, twice elected with majorities of the vote, is the product of a mixed-race marriage. Black presence in neighborhoods no longer results in rapid white flight.

Yet many Americans have a desperate need to believe nothing has changed. They yearn for the moral clarity that enables almost all Americans today to retrospectively condemn the old Southern code.

The irony is that those who claim they lead the civil rights movement today have a vested psychological interest in denying its great triumph.

Michael Barone, senior political analyst for The Washington Examiner (, is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Fox News Channel contributor and a co-author of The Almanac of American Politics. To find out more about Michael Barone, and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at



Tags: News, Columns

Comments (6)

Mike Small
11:02AM AUG 4TH 2013
-The Great Migration was between 1915-1970
-Emmett Till was born and raised in Chicago and not a native of Mississippi
-Emmett Till was murdered August 28th,1955 and Rosa Parks' refusal to get out her seat was December 1, 1955.The same year.
4:38AM AUG 5TH 2013
Who ever said facts matter to Mr. Barone . . . .
7:54PM AUG 3RD 2013
Yes, yes, you must be right:

Unlike Zimmerman, Trayvon had never been arrested
Unlike Zimmerman, Trayvon had never assaulted a cop
Unlike Zimmerman, Trayvon never had a restraining order
Unlike Zimmerman, Trayvon didn't have a history of going ballistic

If Zimmerman doesn't falsely target the kid, Trayvon's alive.
If Zimmerman doesn't follow after the kid, Trayvon's alive.
If Zimmerman doesn't ignore the police's advice, Trayvon's alive.
If Zimmerman stayed in his car, Trayvon's alive.
If Zimmerman doesn't walk after the kid, Trayvon's alive.
If Zimmerman wasn't carrying a gun, Trayvon's alive.
If Zimmerman doesn't draw his gun on an unarmed kid, Trayvon's alive.
If Zimmerman doesn't pull the gun's trigger, Trayvon's alive.
Only because Zimmerman did all these things is Trayvon dead.

Not bad for a white man who mentioned the "white" race only eleven times in this article . . . I mean, for instance, it's not like you haven't previously shown your white bias against even a black President in article after article this past election cycle:

1 - "Romney, Santorum Represent Different White Americas"
2 - "Can Mitt lure upscale whites back to GOP?”
3 - "Romney May Recapture Upscale Whites for the GOP"
4 - "GOP Shouldn't Panic If Whites Become a Minority"
5 - "To Win Burbs, Romney May Pick 'Double-Vanilla' Veep"
6 - "Obama pursues poor, not white working vote"
7 - "White middle class not in Obama’s base"
8 - "Romney needs big share of white working-class vote"
9 - "Romney and the White Working-Class"
10 - "Obama ignores white working class"
11 - "Obama ate grits in Ohio; that's about it"

You continue to be obsessed by the "White" race (even to the point of immediately making sure to declare Zimmerman a non-white "Hispanic" despite a white father). . . . so I guess it shouldn't be news that the killing of a black child by a "Hispanic" who was following him can be over-looked by "white" Americans (and yes, Zimmerman's injuries were even so life threatening he stayed in the hospital how long . . . oh, that's right . . . NEVER) . . . . . . . once again, partisan far right politics of the "Big Lie" and absolutely . . . . .

Pathetic . . . .
5:56AM AUG 4TH 2013
As woman of mixed heritage (race&religion) I have long been aware that paternal/maternal lineage has been used to define offsprings' religious affiliation, but am unaware of similar definitions with regard to race. You (& many others) define Zimmerman as a "non-white 'Hispanic'" despite having white father", but in the previous paragraph refer to our "black President". It seems that you're defining race by paternal lineage - but your use of caps & quotation marks, referencing father's race not mother's, and association of the term 'non-white' leave me uncertain of the delineation - an the basis for same.
4:34AM AUG 5TH 2013
Focus your attention on Mr. Barone's article . . . . he's the one defining Mr. Zimmerman's race as non-white . . . .
Ronald J Riley
11:13AM AUG 3RD 2013
"Instead there was a desperate longing to see this unhappy incident as a case of a white racist hunting down and murdering an innocent black -- with a view to establishing that this kind of thing happens all the time."

It seems pretty clear that much of this is driven by schemers who profit quite handsomely from their activities.

Looking at the Zimmerman case, I am wondering if a civil RICO action would be viable. Most certainly libel-defamation is, but when you add the profit motive then what?

I have watched this case from the beginning because I recognized that it was a product of a well oiled PR campaign, similar to what special interests conduct to promote legislation.

What I wonder about is was that PR campaign designed to stampede the homeowners association insurance company into settling quickly? Remember that they settled not long before George Zimmerman was found not guilty.

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