Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Keep CounterPunch ad free. Support our annual fund drive today!

Shades of Dred Scott


“Southern trees bear a strange fruit

Blood on the vines and blood at the root

Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze

Strange fruit hanging from the poplar tree

Pastoral scene of the gallant south

The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth

Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh

Then the sudden smell of burning flesh”

— “Strange Fruit” by Abel Meeropol / Billie Holiday

I was quite dismayed by the George Zimmerman acquittal. It’s almost as if nothing has changed in the 5 years since Obama was elected, in the 50 years since Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, or even over the 150 years since the Emancipation Proclamation.

The Martin family’s attorney Benjamin Crump compared Trayvon to a couple of civil rights martyrs, Medgar Evers and Emmett Till. But he might have been better served highlighting the parallels between his client’s case and that of Dred Scott.

Scott was an escaped slave who had settled in a free state before being captured and re-enslaved by a bounty hunter ironically named John Sanford. Scott subsequently sued his new master in state and then federal court, losing both times on technical interpretations of the law, despite the fairly obvious fact that he had established his residency in Illinois, a state which prohibited slavery.

With the help of abolitionists, he took the matter all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, reasonably expecting to prevail on appeal. Meanwhile, the publicity stirred up by the controversy divided the country to the point that President Buchanan got involved, pressuring the court to affirm the earlier rulings.

Sure enough, on March 6, 1857, Chief Justice Taney handed down his landmark decision, relying on the Constitution itself to declare blacks “beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations,” going so far as saying African-Americans were “so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”

And exactly how did America get out from under such a patently racist interpretation of the supposedly sacrosanct Constitution? On January 1st, 1863, Abraham Lincoln singlehandedly ended slavery by executive decree via the Emancipation Proclamation. He didn’t ask Congress to pass a law or wait for permission from a bi-partisan team of rivals, but he simply outlawed the evil institution and conferred full-citizenship upon former slaves.

Today, President Obama has no more loyal a constituency than African-Americans. The black community‘s psychic pain as a consequence of the Zimmerman verdict is palpable because the facts leading up to the avoidable tragedy are so easy to establish.

17 year-old Trayvon Martin was talking on the phone while walking home from a convenience store after purchasing Skittles and iced tea when he suddenly found himself being stalked by a scary stranger who had profiled him as a perpetrator. The whole world, by now, has heard the phone call on which Zimmerman was clearly ordered by the police operator to stay in his car.

Yet, he ignored those instructions, and a couple of minutes later, Trayvon lay dead from a bullet to the heart. His inconsolable parents patiently waited for the criminal justice system to work, but a jury let Zimmerman off scot-free, despite overwhelming evidence that he was the aggressor.

Is there really any doubt about who had to defend himself? Or that the outcome would’ve been the opposite if a black man with a gun had tailed and then killed a white kid under similar circumstances? Thanks to the proliferation of “Stand Your Ground” laws, America is in danger of turning back into a country where no black person has any civil rights which any armed white racist vigilante feels bound to respect.

Therefore, my fervent prayer is that President Obama will soon summon up the gumption to rise to the occasion and use his executive powers to rectify the situation, including the miscarriage of justice in the Zimmerman case. Otherwise, a sense of being relegated to second-class citizenship might deleteriously affect the hearts and minds of an impressionable generation of black youngsters in a way unlikely ever to be undone.

This is your moment, Mr. President. And the world is watching.

Lloyd Williams is an attorney and a member of the New York State bar.


More articles by:

2016 Fund Drive
Smart. Fierce. Uncompromised. Support CounterPunch Now!

  • cp-store
  • donate paypal

CounterPunch Magazine


Weekend Edition
October 28, 2016
Friday - Sunday
John Pilger
Inside the Invisible Government; War, Propaganda, Clinton & Trump
Andrew Levine
The Hillary Era is Coming: Worry!
Gary Leupp
Seven World-Historical Achievements of the Iraq Invasion of 2003
Paul Street
Standing Rock Water-Protectors Waterboarded While the Cleveland Indians Romped
Stanley L. Cohen
Israel: 1984 Everlasting
Michael Brenner
American Foreign Policy in the Post-Trump Era
Luciana Bohne
Crossing the Acheron: Back to Vietnam
Robert Hunziker
The Political Era of Climate Refugees
Stephen Cooper
Alabama’s Last Execution was an Atrocity
Pete Dolack
Work Harder So Speculators Can Get More
Joyce Nelson
Canadians Launch Constitutional Challenge Against CETA
John Laforge
US Uranium Weapons Have Been Used in Syria
Paul Edwards
The Vision Thing ’16
Arshad Khan
Hillary, Trump and Sartre: How Existentialism Disrobes the Major Presidential Candidates
Peter Lee
It’s ON! Between Duterte and America
Joseph Grosso
Starchitects in the City: Vanity Fair and Gentrification
Patrick Carr
Economic Racial Disparity in North Carolina
David Swanson
Public vs. Media on War
Chris Gilbert
Demo Derby in Venezuela: The Left’s New Freewheeling Politics
Binoy Kampmark
Nobel Confusion: Ramos-Horta, Trump and World Disorder
Stephen Cooper
Alabama’s Last Execution Was an Atrocity
Binoy Kampmark
Nobel Confusion: Ramos-Horta, Trump and World Disorder
Russell Mokhiber
Lucifer’s Banker: Bradley Birkenfeld on Corporate Crime in America
Ron Jacobs
Death to the Fascist Insect! The SLA and the Cops
Cesar Chelala
Embargo on Cuba is an Embarrassment for the United States
Jack Smith
And the Winner Is….
Ken Knabb
Beyond Voting: the Limits of Electoral Politics
Matt Peppe
An Alternate Narrative on Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump
James Rothenberg
Water Under the Bridge
Louis Yako
Remembering Rasul Gamzatov: The Poet of the People
Brian Cloughley
The US, NATO and the Pope
Louis Proyect
The Outsider-Insider: Isaac Babel’s Big Mistake
Martin Billheimer
Now and Then, Ancient Sorceries
October 27, 2016
Paul Street
An Identity-Politicized Election and World Series Lakefront Liberals Can Love
Matthew Stevenson
Sex and the Presidential City
Jim Kavanagh
Tom Hayden’s Haunting
CJ Hopkins
The Pathologization of Dissent
Mike Merryman-Lotze
The Inherent Violence of Israel’s Gaza Blockade
Robert Fisk
Is Yemen Too Much for the World to Take?
Shamus Cooke
Stopping Hillary’s Coming War on Syria
Jan Oberg
Security Politics and the Closing of the Open Society
Ramzy Baroud
The War on UNESCO: Al-Aqsa Mosque is Palestinian and East Jerusalem is Illegally Occupied
Colin Todhunter
Lower Yields and Agropoisons: What is the Point of GM Mustard in India?
Norman Pollack
The Election: Does It Matter Who Wins?
Nyla Ali Khan
The Political and Cultural Richness of Kashmiriyat