Justice and Trayvon Martin: Where Were White Liberals?

Justice and Trayvon Martin: Where Were White Liberals?

Justice and Trayvon Martin: Where Were White Liberals?

In Sanford, the movement for justice for Trayvon Martin has been led almost exclusively by African Americans. Why are white progressives on the sidelines?


Sanford, Florida

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.”

Behind closed doors and among themselves, I have heard varied reasons for why white people have been reluctant to step forward, some seemingly reasonable, others less so. Many claimed they were hesitant to rush to judgment; they wanted to let the criminal justice system work before making a commitment. Some said that the incident lacked the moral clarity of the civil rights movement of years past. Others, including many of my liberal suburban neighbors, said they were troubled by the rhetorical excesses and scattered calls for economic boycotts and civil disobedience (or worse) from fringe elements.

But for most, the main impediment to joining the protests seemed to be that the leading national figure in the case so far is the Rev. Al Sharpton. Many here still remember Sharpton as the heavyset, jump-suited, bling-wearing urban preacher who made some bad calls—like the infamous Tawana Brawley case—around which he built his following.  

The movement supporting the family of Trayvon Martin resonates with me. In the 1970s, long before I became a religion writer, I reported (for The Nation, among other publications) on local criminal cases in the South that morphed into national political causes, contemporary counterparts to sensational cases like Sacco and Vanzetti, the Scottsboro Boys and Leo Frank from earlier in the 20th century.  

In the 1970s, these cases followed a familiar pattern, beginning with the central elements: a troubling death, accusations of racism and police misconduct. There was an equally familiar cast of characters: ambitious lawyers, political and media opportunists, writers jockeying backstage for lucrative book contracts, even t-shirt vendors on the sidelines. As the controversies unfolded, leaks, allegations and revelations suddenly whipsawed competing narratives.

All of this has also been true in the Trayvon Martin case—but so what? How would it have been going out on a limb for white clergy and lay people to support the grieving Martin family by calling for a serious investigation and for racial reconciliation on an issue that has clearly touched a nerve in the African American community? Or to question the National Rifle Association-backed “Stand Your Ground” law, which was apparently cited by Zimmerman to police, leading them to simply walk away from the body on the grass?

Those who would prefer a case without complication or ambiguity, led by a figure like Martin Luther King, Jr. (who many forget was widely regarded in his own time as a rabble-rouser) will have a long wait. The issue of justice for Trayvon Martin is larger than one leader, and it is clear now that history will not wait.

It is indisputable to me that without the media firestorm and the local movement in the streets, there would have been no grand jury, no special prosecutor, no governor’s task force, no independent Department of Justice and FBI investigation—and no possibility of justice. In the shadows, police incompetence and indifference would have determined the outcome of the case.

Despite Central Florida’s image as a modern theme park Mecca, the region has a dark and violent past when it comes to white terror inflicted on African Americans. In separate events in the 1920s, an attempt by two black men to vote in the town of Ocoee led to a race riot that spread to Apopka, Orlando and Winter Springs. Three years later, a white mob attacked the black community of Rosewood, burning the town to the ground and scattering its residents forever.

In the spring of 1947, before he broke the color bar in Major League Baseball, Jackie Robinson came to Sanford with one of the Brooklyn Dodgers’ minor league teams. Although Robinson kept a low profile, a mob of town residents effectively ran him out of town, forcing him to stay miles away in Daytona Beach.

Much more horrendous, on Christmas Day, 1951, Harry T. Moore, Florida’s NAACP executive director and an anti-lynching activist, and his wife were blown up in their wood frame home. Local law enforcement officers were widely thought to have been among the Klansmen responsible. Harry Moore died en route to a Sanford hospital, where his wife died nine days later.

In 2007, an all-white jury acquitted seven prison guards and a nurse of beating to death a 14-year-old African American boot camp inmate, a killing caught on videotape.

It is no coincidence that today, under the Voting Rights Act, new Congressional districts in central Florida have to be reviewed by the Department of Justice to ensure there is no racial discrimination in the way they are drawn, given the historical legacy of Jim Crow.

These ugly historical racist stains (too often forgotten) can inform, warn and motivate efforts for the good in this region. They should be neither secret nor solely symbolic. And this time, there’s no refuge in the disingenuous excuse that many white people invoked retrospectively about the civil rights movement—that they were working “behind the scenes” in central Florida.

One white clergyman who did march with the Trayvon Martin demonstrators is the Rev. James Coffin, a Seventh-day Adventist minister and executive director of the Interfaith Council of Central Florida. For the most part, he says, in the movement for justice for Trayvon Martin,  “it’s the victim’s affinity group that has to go to battle for him,” which should not be the case.

“African-Americans shouldn’t be waging this battle on their own,” Coffin told me. “While it certainly has racial overtones and undertones, it’s a problem that’s bigger than just racism. So for our own well-being and self-serving purposes, if for no other reason, non-African-Americans need to get involved.”

I’m not exempt from this responsibility. My personal perspective on the movement is admittedly split.  Although I was laid off by my daily newspaper four years ago, I carried my own notepad to the marches and demonstrations, perhaps reflexively, my outdated credentials around my neck.  Yet increasingly at the Trayvon Martin marches, I felt the stirrings of my own ‘60s radical youth, the pull to come down out of the press box and get back on the field. It’s where I belonged, so that’s what I did.

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