Wednesday’s decision by Florida Special Prosecutor Angela Corey to charge George Zimmerman with second-degree murder in connection with February’s fatal shooting ofTrayvon Martin, an unarmed African American teenager, raises numerous troubling questions. Among the least considered, but perhaps most vexing: In the quest for justice in this case, where were progressive and other well-meaning white people?
During the civil rights movement of the 1960s in the South, it was rare to see a major march or demonstration without white clergy of various denominations and faith traditions (admittedly, most from the North) in the multi-racial vanguard, with a significant contingent of idealistic young white activists and trade unionists back in the ranks.
By stark contrast, the local movement in support of Trayvon Martin’s family has been led almost exclusively by African American clergy. There have been few if any white pastors, priests or rabbis in the front ranks or on the speakers’ platform. At the four major marches and rallies here that I attended, there was only a sprinkling of white people at all—mostly old lefties from the ‘60s and younger ones from the area’s Occupy movement. It was difficult to find a white person in the crowd not holding a microphone, camera or notebook.
Participation by local white clergy has been especially tardy—and tepid. A newly-arrived Episcopal bishop and about a dozen mainline and evangelical ministers joined one march and then faded away. Just one white Southern Baptist minister spoke from a platform, leading a very low-key prayer.
Around the country, the same seems to be true. Franklin Graham, whose father Billy was a pioneer in integrating his crusades, promised African-American church and civil rights leaders that he would speak out, but after praying with them, he has remained largely silent and invisible. A recent study by the Pew Forum found that 43 percent of whites felt that there had been too much news coverage of the Trayvon Martin story, compared to 13 percent of blacks.
Others have noticed. Orlando Sentinel columnist Scott Maxwell raised the issue of why, apart from the honorable exceptions of Sanford Mayor Jeff Triplett and former Democratic Congressman Alan Grayson, it has taken so long for this area’s white community to understand the significance of what was happening in Sanford:
“It took speeches and demands from the likes of Sharpton, U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown…, Martin Luther King III and NAACP leader Ben Jealous. Do you notice anything that all of those people have in common? They’re all black. White leaders have been conspicuously absent.”