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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.

 

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