Trayvon Martin the Latest Victim of America's Fear of Black Men

tags: Reconstruction, African American history, George Zimmerman, Trayvon Martin, Elaine F. Parsons



7-16-13

Elaine F. Parsons specializes in the history of of social movements, particularly in the nineteenth-century United States. She is the author of "Manhood Lost: Fallen Drunkards and Redeeming Women in the Nineteenth-Century United States" and is an an associate professor of history Duquesne University.


Credit: Wiki Commons.

The image of Trayvon Martin’s lifeless body on the Florida ground mirrors scenes from almost 150 years ago, when the Ku-Klux Klan rode in Florida. At the end of the Civil War, many white southerners lived in fear. They were terrified that black men, newly freed, would rise up against them and exact a terribly vengeance for slavery. Allowed to move freely, organize, and possess firearms, they would burn farms, kill men, and rape women. This fear was baseless: the amount of black-on-white violence after the war was trivial, and there is no evidence that any large-scale violence was ever planned by freedpeople. But many white men spent long nights eyes wide open, guns in hand.

Some of the most fearful southern white men rallied behind “Ku-Klux” bands the emerged across the South from 1868-1872. Southern newspapers praised them as vigilantes protecting whites from savage and uncontrolled black men. Southern elites patiently explained the danger white southerners felt they were in and the protection the Klan provided. In protecting post-war Southern whites against this imagined danger, Ku-Klux bands committed real violence, unleashing a reign of terror against black men and women and their few white allies. Ku-Klux bands took men from their beds, whipped them, and sometimes murdered them. They shot 22 –year-old Charner Gordon execution style while he was pleading for his life. They allowed Henry Lowther to choose to be castrated rather than killed: it was possible the next morning to reconstitute his path through the town seeking help by following the trail of his blood. Yet these Ku-Klux had broad community support. Sheriffs often would not arrest them, neighbors would not testify against them, and juries would not find them guilty. In part, this was because their justification through fear put them above the law.

Today, as then, the idea that fear justifies violence is as dangerous one. Justification through fear, as much today as then, supports the stronger over the weaker. Ironically, a person’s likely success in evoking fear as a justification is inversely proportional to the danger of his or her situation. Demographically, the person far and away most at risk of violent death is a young, poor black man, yet this in power are more likely to sympathize with the fears of the wealthier, the whiter, and the older. Historians explain violence by the more powerful through their fear: settlers feared Indian attacks, Puritan leaders feared witches, capitalists feared radical workers. But we are much less likely to emphasize the much more reasonable fears accused witches had of Puritan ministers, workers had of capitalists, or Indians had of settlers. Rather, we are more likely to think of violence from traditionally disempowered groups as arising from anger or disaffection. If Trayvon Martin had allowed fear to command him as it commanded George Zimmerman, had carried a gun in case some crazy guy came after him, and had killed Zimmerman, his efforts to justify his violence through fear would not have worked. Martin was solidly middle class, but a black young man who commits an act of violence does not get a pass because he is afraid.

George Zimmerman’s Hispanic ancestors would have been more likely to have been on the receiving end of racial violence in this country. Yet as Aura Bogado pointed out in The Nation, he aligned himself with Euro-American racial positions and anxieties. Like white men before him, he cultivated his fears over years. He bought his fear an arsenal. He joined a voluntary association with others who lived with the same fears. He had a right to choose to live a life driven by fear, but he had no right to allow his own fear to harm others. Fear cannot be trusted as a guide to action: it is always a corrupt judge and unreliable narrator. The things we fear are largely constructions of our own minds, shaped and powered by films we watch, stories we hear, traumas of our childhood, or guilt we feel for our own failings. History teems with examples of people who are most afraid of those they have mistreated. It has always been easy to fear those who have the least, who might want a bigger share.

Those who allow themselves to be commanded by their fears become monsters. Klansmen terrorized and killed thousands of black men and women throughout the South before they could sleep at night. We are obligated to face our fears rationally, not to allow our emotional quirks, wounds, and weaknesses to endanger others. It is terrible to be afraid. Yet Reconstruction-era whites had no right to ease their nightmares by becoming terrorists. George Zimmerman had no right to ease his by killing Trayvon Martin. It is crucial that we reject those who claim that their fear gives them a right to endanger, harm, or kill others.


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