photo of protestor holding a "Justice for Trayvon Martin" signI was never confident that a jury comprised almost exclusively of white women would convict George Zimmerman of second-degree murder, but last night’s not guilty verdict still left me breathless. I had wanted to believe that my worst fears weren’t true, that I am not living in a country where a man can get away with killing a seventeen-year-old child because that child is black. But the verdict sent a clear message: black people’s lives are not valued in America.

This case has been rife with racial tension from the beginning. It took Florida police six weeks to arrest George Zimmerman after he shot and killed Trayvon Martin on February 26, 2012. Their inaction brought to mind similar examples of legal injustice in US history, and many began to draw parallels between Trayvon Martin and Emmett Till.

During the summer of 1955, two white men brutally tortured and shot fourteen-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi because he whistled at a white woman while buying bubble gum at the local grocery. The white woman’s husband, Roy Bryant, enlisted the help of his half-brother, J.W. Milam, and the two men kidnapped and murdered the black child before dumping his body into a river. In a gross miscarriage of justice, which many credit as a catalyst for the Civil Rights Movement, both men were acquitted by an all-white jury.

When I learned the story of Emmett Till’s lynching, I didn’t understand how it was possible for these two men to get away with murder. After all, America’s foundational philosophy is “liberty and justice for all.” But when a victim is black, and the accused and their jurors are white, accountability can be elusive. We learned that lesson fifty-seven years ago, and we are still learning it today.

The morning before the Zimmerman verdict was reached, journalist Aura Bogado appeared on MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry show and pointed out that, although the Zimmerman trial is not about gender, the all-female jury is getting a lot of attention in the media. “It’s actually five white people and one person of color,” Bogado said. “They’re seen as women; their whiteness is not seen.”

This sentiment was echoed by Maya Wiley, president of the Center for Social Inclusion and another commentator on that episode of the show. Wiley pointed out that Zimmerman’s lawyers played to the racial fears they believed the white women jurors would possess by calling Olivia Bertalan as a witness for Zimmerman. Bertalan, a white woman, conveyed her appreciation of Zimmerman’s efforts to help her feel safe — including giving her a dog — after two black teenagers broke into her home.

“They called a white woman to talk about the two black men who terrorized her in her home,” commented Wiley. “That was to reinforce to white women on that jury that [they] need to be afraid [of black men].”

Mamie Till, Emmett Till’s mother, understood the climate of race-based fear in a time of Jim Crow laws and legal segregation. To help white people understand the brutality that had been inflicted upon her son, she insisted on having an open casket at the funeral. Mamie Till is reported to have said, “There was just no way I could describe what was in that box. No way. And I just wanted the world to see.”

The world did see what was done to Emmett Till. Photographs of his bloated body and severely mangled face were featured in newspapers internationally.

Unlike Mamie Till, Trayvon Martin’s mother wasn’t given the courtesy of choosing whether her son’s dead body would be displayed publicly. Instead, MSNBC and Gawker made the choice for her. (Warning: This link contains graphic violence.) As a result, millions of people have seen Trayvon Martin’s lifeless body. Like the photographs of Emmett Till, the image haunts me.

After the verdict was announced, many Americans took to Facebook and Twitter to express their devastation, outrage, horror, and shame. Some pointed out the hypocrisy of Zimmerman’s not guilty verdict in comparison with last year’s verdict in the Marissa Alexander case. A 31-year-old, black mother of three, Alexander was found guilty of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon for firing a warning shot to scare off her abusive husband as he threatened her. No one was harmed, except Alexander and her children; she received a mandatory minimum sentence of twenty years in prison.

Amid talk of possible rioting after the verdict was reached, blogger Jay Smooth made this comment on Twitter: “The fundamental danger of an acquittal is not more riots, it is more George Zimmermans.” His comment made me wonder whether they were saying the same thing nearly six decades ago when Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam got away with murder in Mississippi.

No parent wants their son to be the next Emmett Till. Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin now share Mamie Till’s pain of losing a beloved child in a national tragedy. After the verdict was announced, Tracy Martin tweeted this emotional response: “Even in his death, I know my baby is proud of the fight we, along with all of you, put up for him.… Even though I am brokenhearted, my faith is unshattered.”

For me, I will continue fighting until it is no longer the case that a man can walk free after killing a black child in America. Hoodies up!

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