Trayvon Martin, the legacy of lynching, and the role of white women

One cannot have reconciliation without truth. The paradox of feminist history is that women, both black and white, will never cross the river of blood between us until white women see the bloody legacy upon which even their own power exists.

~ Emma Coleman Jordan

I had returned to the Lillian E. Smith Center for the Arts in the mountains of North Georgia for three weeks of solitude in July 2013. I hoped to make significant headway on my research and writing about the intergenerational legacy of lynching and how this reign of terror remains largely unacknowledged by the descendants of its white perpetrators. I returned to the Lillian Smith Center not only because it offered a beautiful, secluded place to write; I wanted to do this work in a place inhabited by Lillian Smith’s fierce, tenacious spirit. She has been a significant mentor for me as I seek to describe how the intergenerational legacy of lynching has been manifest in my own white family. From this mountain, beginning in the 1930s, Lillian Smith broke the codes of Southern white tradition by naming with unflinching and disloyal precision how lynching was used to terrorize black people and keep white women in their place. Unlike many of her white contemporaries, Smith understood that racism and sexism were inextricably intertwined and that white women played a dual role as oppressor and oppressed.[1]

During my stay on Old Screamer Mountain, I wanted to study and write about the complex and contradictory role that white women played in the history of lynching. Black men and women were lynched as a means of terrorizing and exerting power over black communities. It was also a way of consolidating white patriarchal control of white women’s bodies and diverting attention from the physical and sexual assault that black and white women routinely faced at the hands of white men. Despite popular notions to the contrary, white men were not the sole perpetrators and advocates of lynching. White women brought their children to lynchings, sometimes holding their little bodies high above the crowd for a better view of the desecrating, brutalizing violence.[2]

There were other white women who protested lynching and organized campaigns to abolish it, most notably the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching (ASWPL) which was organized in 1930 and eventually boasted a membership of four million white women. Despite the important accomplishments of the ASWPL, its leaders routinely rejected overtures from black women leaders to work collaboratively and they vehemently opposed federal anti-lynching legislation and the suffrage of black women. Ironically, the very white women who were passionately working to oppose racial violence engaged in racist hierarchies that ignored, dismissed, and excluded the leadership and concerns of black women.[3]

As with so many other aspects of lynching, the role of white women in this heinous history has been largely repressed or ignored by contemporary white women. African American feminists such as Ida B. Wells-Barnett, bell hooks, Ruby Sales, and Emma Coleman Jordan have consistently challenged white women to own, face, and grapple with this critical part of our history.[4] Until we do, they warn, genuine bonds and collaboration between black and white women will be impossible. Until we do, we will continue to reenact the dynamics and patterns that undergird contemporary white supremacy and racial violence. As Jordan states:

“The paradox of feminist history is that lynching was used as a mechanism to control the social behavior and status of white women, and African-Americans–men and women, even as white women benefited from their elevated position in the racial hierarchy built on lynching. Therefore, the first step across the river of blood between us requires identification of, and acceptance of the complex role white women played during the era of lynching.”[5]

When I reserved my cabin at the Lillian Smith Center nearly one year earlier, I had no way of knowing that my stay there would coincide with the final days of the George Zimmerman trial. I had come to Georgia to read and write about the ideology that under-girded lynching, how it continues to infect white Americans, and why we must make this history visible. To my horror, every headline and news report about the trial confirmed the urgent need for this work. The politics, patterns, and policies of lynching were brazenly reproduced in that Sanford, Florida courtroom.

With the exception of Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, the main players in this trial were white. Judge Debra Nelson, who presided over the case and made critical decisions that affected its outcome, was white. The entire prosecution team was white, with the possible exception of Special Prosecutor Angela Corey, a granddaughter of Syrian immigrants. Zimmerman’s lawyers, Don West and Mark O’Mara, were white. Perhaps most disturbing and ominous of all, five of the six jurors were white women.

Race alone was not a fail proof predictor of how individuals would approach this case or what the eventual outcome would be. As Justice Clarence Thomas proves, all lawyers of color do not share an anti-racist perspective. A white attorney who had done his or her own anti-racist work through the years could have brought such a perspective. Furthermore, the structural racism that pervades the U.S. judicial system is not merely the sum of the individuals present. Nevertheless, I can imagine that Trayvon Martin’s parents, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, were devastated, but not completely surprised, when this jury found George Zimmerman not guilty in the killing of their unarmed son. Long before the trial got underway, history was stacked against them.

The odds are tilted in favor of white shooters with black victims in states with Stand Your Ground laws such as Florida’s. Furthermore, even in states without Stand Your Ground laws, white people who kill black people are far more likely to be found not guilty than the other way around. [6]

Before the trial got underway, Judge Nelson forbade the prosecution from speaking about racial profiling. Only the word “profiling” could be used. [7] Thus began the racial sanitizing. Even though the entire case was saturated with racism, the judge and attorneys agreed not to speak explicitly about race. Such a move begs the question of who benefits from silence about race, racism and racial profiling.  This prohibition mirrors common white refusals to admit to racism: that if race is not discussed, then racism is not in the room.  And prohibitions like this force discussions of racism back onto people of color, who often get accused of “playing the race card” and “inserting race” into race-erased situations. The belief that not talking about racism creates and protects a level playing field is a fantasy constructed by white people who benefit everyday from seeing themselves and each other as racially unmarked.

When I first heard about Judge Nelson’s ruling that racial profiling could not be named in the prosecution’s openings remarks, I assumed that the prosecution team fought back and argued that racial profiling was key to this case. Apparently I was wrong. In a press conference held right after the verdict was announced, Angela Corey declared, “This case has never been about race or the right to bear arms. We believe this case all along was about boundaries, and George Zimmerman exceeded those boundaries.”

Whatever Corey’s motivation for declaring that the case was never about race, her pronouncement represents a profound betrayal of Trayvon Martin and his parents. At their first public appearances after their son’s death, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin stated their unequivocal conviction that had their son been white, he would not have been targeted and killed by Zimmerman.

Angela Corey may have believed she could not win this case in the state of Florida by trying to prove racial profiling. But that is a different matter altogether. For her to state, in the face of Trayvon’s grieving parents, that this case “has never been about race,” is to pour salt in raw, open wounds. That Angela Corey did not realize the offensiveness of her statement should give us all pause about how the prosecution’s case was conceived and argued.

In a courtroom where mention of race was muzzled and stricken from the record, the defense team had a field day using race-baiting scare tactics at every turn. Not needing to use the “R” word, they did everything in their power to paint a portrait of Trayvon Martin that matched the all too common stereotype of a menacing, dangerous, gang-banging black teenager. In rhetoric reminiscent of the language used to defend lynching for more than 150 years, the lawyers sought to convince the jurors that Trayvon Martin posed a mortal threat to them and their families.  Charles Blow noted that the defense team utilized “old racial tropes” designed to evoke fear in the white female jurors:

“…for example, when the defense held up a picture of a shirtless Martin and told the jurors that this was the person Zimmerman encountered the night he shot him. But in fact it was not the way Zimmerman had seen Martin. Consciously or subconsciously, the defense played on an old racial trope: asking the all-female jury — mostly white — to fear the image of the glistening black buck, as Zimmerman had.”[8]

In his closing arguments, Zimmerman’s attorney lugged in a large piece of heavy cement and stated that Trayvon Martin wasn’t an unarmed teenager carrying just a bag of Skittles and a can of pop. “He had armed himself with the concrete sidewalk,” O’Mara declared.

One might think that such a ludicrous argument would be dismissed by the jury as the posturing of a desperate attorney. How could a sidewalk be seen as a lethal weapon comparable to a loaded gun? Surely, the jurors wouldn’t fall for such cheap theatrics. Problem was: the old racial tropes still have power precisely because the imprint of lynching continues to shape white feelings, stereotypes, assumptions, and fears about black male bodies. The fact that the defense could only conjure up a nonsensical sidewalk as his weapon made no dent in the power of the old, racial story. Trayvon was judged to be armed, trespassing, and dangerous.

To find George Zimmerman guilty, the jurors needed to have the capacity to believe that Trayvon Martin could be a victim. Right there was the rub. In the day to day working of the criminal justice system, we have ample evidence that white people perceive black males as victimizers. The recent statistics about police practices in New York City reveal this deep-seated, long-practiced bias. Thousands of innocent New Yorkers are stopped and frisked each year by the NYPD, the vast majority of those stopped being African American and Latino males. [9] As Marc Lamont Hill noted, from the moment he was killed, “Martin’s identity and character were called into question by law enforcement, media, and everyday citizens in ways that transformed the ‘Trial of George Zimmerman’ into ‘The Trial of Trayvon Martin.’”[10]

Justice for Trayvon Martin may have been doomed at the point of jury selection. I realize that the “jury of one’s peers” in this case referred to George Zimmerman rather than Trayvon Martin. Nevertheless, I am puzzled as to why the prosecution allowed a jury of six women, five of whom are white. Despite the fact that Sanford County is 80% white, representation from the other 20% would certainly have been in order. I also have to wonder whether potential jurors of color were ruled out more quickly on the false presumption that they, not white people, are racially biased.

Three days after the verdict was announced on July 13, CNN correspondent Anderson Cooper obtained an “exclusive interview” with one of the white jurors. [11] Throughout the interview, she displayed sympathy for, and an identification with, the emotions and actions that led George Zimmerman to confront and ultimately kill Trayvon Martin. She acknowledged that she felt bad for Trayvon and his parents, sad for their loss, but she described George like she might describe a family member or friend: as a man “whose heart was in the right place” but “didn’t use good judgment” because he was so justifiably concerned about crime in the neighborhood.

That level of empathy was never expressed for Trayvon. She regretted the loss of life but she believed Trayvon was the aggressor who got mad and threw the first punch. She wished George hadn’t gotten out of the car, but that didn’t make him the aggressor; George “just got in a little bit too deep.” Disavowing that race played any role in George’s actions, she thought Trayvon’s behavior warranted suspicion, especially considering all the break-ins that had occurred recently in the neighborhood. After all, she said, “it, being late at night, dark at night, raining, and anybody would think anybody walking down the road stopping and turning and looking…is suspicious.”

Anderson Cooper didn’t press her at this point and ask whether she believed George Zimmerman would have pursued a white teenager who was walking slowly in the rain at night. Would Zimmerman have gotten out of his car to follow him? Would Zimmerman have used words like “those punks…they always get away” if the teenager had been white? Cooper didn’tfollow up with any of those questions.

Most disturbing was to hear this juror say that the issue of racial profiling never came up in their deliberations. Not once. When asked, she said she’d be happy to have George Zimmerman on a neighborhood watch in her community because she believes he has learned his lesson and won’t go too far again.

When I consider the ways that the legacy of lynching is imprinted on white minds and imaginations, this juror displayed them: the lack of empathy for the black victim, the disavowal that racism played any role in the violence, her belief that this particular man posed a danger to her and her (white) neighbors, the regret that things got ‘a bit out of hand,’ the conviction that the victim got what was coming to him. The specter of darkness, imminent threat, and danger — all associated with black male bodies — are imbedded in her assertion that killing was warranted: it, being late at night, dark at night, raining, and anybody would think anybody walking down the road stopping and turning and looking…is suspicious.

As if the verdict were not open to question, extremely painful and even egregious to an entire segment of the American populace, the self-congratulatory speeches of the prosecuting team, after the verdict was announced, were surreal. The entirely white team of prosecuting attorneys gathered on a podium and the state prosecutor, Angela Corey, began by saying, “We are so proud to stand before you…” [12] Proud? George Zimmerman has just been found not guilty of murder. No word of regret about the verdict was expressed. No show of concern for the devastating impact this verdict had on the grieving parents of Trayvon Martin. Instead Corey declared that the prosecutors in this trial “had shown respect for the living and had done their best to assure due process to all involved and we believe we brought out the truth on behalf of Trayvon Martin.” As though “bringing out the truth” was enough to render the “not guilty” verdict insignificant by comparison.

Like a celebrity at an academy awards ceremony where congratulations and heartfelt thanks are stated unendingly, the smiling special prosecutor said, “There are so many people to thank starting with Sheriff Eslinger and his entire Sheriff’s office. They have been so good to us.” On the heels of their failure to win a conviction, Corey talked about her “amazing team of lawyers and investigators,” lauding their skill and prowess. The entire speech was about the goodness and virtue of the white people who had so selflessly given their time and talents to this case. In her entire four minute speech, the name of Trayvon Martin was spoken one time. She didn’t thank or even acknowledge Trayvon’s parents. Instead she focused on the judge and her fellow attorneys and investigators “who put their lives on hold.”

Without expressing any judgment or regrets about their verdict, Corey showered praise on the jury who had displayed what she characterized as selfless sacrifice: “I want to thank the jury for the 16 hours of deliberation that they took to go over all of the facts and circumstances…they worked very hard, we honor them for their service.” Again, not one word about the hours, days, and months of agony experienced by Trayvon’s family leading up to this trial, to say nothing of the pain they endured having to listen to the defense team’s accusation that their son was “responsible for his own death.” Nor did Corey bother to mention the 16 hours of torture it must have been for Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin to wait, hoping against hope that the jury would do the right thing and find Trayvon’s killer guilty of murder.

In fact, Corey never spoke the names of Trayvon’s parents or addressed them directly in her speech. She gave them a passing nod, almost as an afterthought, when saying, “And, of course, our hearts as always go out to our victim’s family and to all victims of crime.” Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin were rendered invisible in her remarks, lumped together with “all victims of crime.”

When Corey relinquished the microphone to her colleague, Bernie De La Riondo, he began by thanking the media for respecting their privacy and then said, “I am disappointed as we are with the verdict but we accept it.” That was the first and only expression of disappointment from the entire team. Clearly, De La Riondo didn’t want to linger on any aspect of the trial that would signal negativity. He went on to praise the “great criminal justice system in this country…the best in the world.”

Attorney John Guy was a man of few words: “We have from the beginning just prayed for the truth to come out and for peace to be the result. And that continues to be our prayers and we believe they have been answered.”

By the time the fourth and last prosecutor, Rick Mantei, came to the microphone, it became clear what was at the heart of this orchestrated ceremony. Each of the four attorneys was bent on assuring us that “the truth has been served” and the U.S. has the greatest criminal justice system in the world. Under and between their words lay this subtext: we should all just calm down, accept what has happened, and make sure that peace prevails in the streets. These white lawyers clearly feared that violence might erupt in reaction to the verdict. They were seeking to exonerate themselves preemptively by reassuring everyone they had done the best they could.

Like the others, Mantei didn’t voice regret or remorse about the verdict. Instead, he lauded “the parents of the dead teenage victim, Trayvon Martin,” for handling a difficult situation “like ladies and gentlemen,“ displaying “class,” and “keeping their pain in check when they needed to.” As the last speaker of this all-white team of attorneys, he too was invoking the need to keep the peace by lifting Trayvon’s parents up as a model for others about how to stay calm and not make a scene.

It was a solidly white narrative from beginning to end. No place for grief. No room for outrage. Everything is as it should be. The truth has been served. The jury did the best they could. Our criminal justice system has proven once again that it works. Everyone can go home now, assured that the world has not ended. Life goes on.

And you bet it does for those of us who are white. When the verdict was announced, life was not altered one iota for white people in this country. They are no less safe because of it. The verdict does not place their children’s lives in jeopardy.

In the aftermath of the verdict, a number of my white feminist friends posted their outrage on Facebook, expressing shock and dismay that a jury of six women would exonerate George Zimmerman. “Why couldn’t those women in the jury feel identification with Sybrina Fulton?” they asked. “Why didn’t sisterhood or mother love trump racism in their deliberations?”

Legally speaking, the critical issue in this trial was that the jury could not feel identification with Sybrina’s son, Trayvon; could not see him as an unarmed victim of murder. I believe this lack of identification has its roots, in part, in the legacies of lynching that continue to infect white Americans. Furthermore, the history of white feminist movements reveals that racism is not that easily trumped and the betrayal of black women by white women far more commonplace than not. The horrific history of lynching that occurred during the 19thand 20th centuries has effectively been expunged from the collective memory of white people. And too few white feminist organizations have addressed the continuing realities of police brutality, mass incarceration, and racial violence in a systematic, sustained, and collaborative fashion. Racism will continue to trump sisterhood unless and until those of us who are white and feminist critically examine what Emma Coleman Jordan calls “the bloody history upon which” our own power exists. If we do not examine and address the ways this bloody history continues to shape our imaginations, actions, policies, and priorities, it will be tragically replicated again and again as it was in the lynching of Trayvon Martin and the exoneration of his killer.

Melanie S. Morrison is executive director of Allies for Change. She can be reached through


[1] Among the books Lillian Smith wrote, I would especially recommend Killers of the Dream (1949), Now Is the Time (1955), and The Winner Names the Age: A Collection of Writings (1978).
[2] For a few recent examples of analyses of lynching see Emma Coleman Jordan, Crossing the River of Blood Between Us: Lynching, Violence, Beauty, and the Paradox of Feminist History, 3 J. Gender Race & Just. 545-580 (2000); Claude A. Clegg, A Troubled Ground: A Tale of Murder, Lynching, and Reckoning in the New South, University of Illinois Press, 2010; Sherrilyn Ifill, On the Courthouse Lawn: Confronting the Legacy of Lynching in the Twenty-first Century, Beacon Press, 2007; Amy Louise Wood, Lynching and Spectacle: Witnessing Racial Violence in America, 1890-1940, University of North Carolina Press, 2011; Crystal M. Feimster, Southern Horrors: Women and the Politics of Rape and Lynching, Harvard University Press, 2011.
[3]  Jordan, p. 554
[4]  See Ida B. Wells-Barnett, “Miss Willard’s Attitude,” in On Lynchings, Classics in Black Studies Series, Humanity Books, 2002. Wells calls Frances Willard, leader of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, to task for her silence and culpability in failing to condemn lynching; see also bell hooks, Talking Back: Thinking Black, Thinking Feminist. Boston: South End Press, 1989; see also the work of Ruby Sales, founder and director of Breaking the Silence Against Modern Day Lynching, a program of the SpiritHouse Project (, that documents and records issues, articles, and photographs on the rising of modern day lynchings, beatings, drownings (torture) by White police and vigilantes.rate of modern lynchings, beatings, drownings (torture) by white police and vigilantes; see also Emma Coleman Jordan, Crossing the River of Blood Between Us: Lynching, Violence, Beauty, and the Paradox of Feminist History, 3 J. Gender Race & Just. 545-580 (2000).e of modern day lynchings, beatings, drownings (torture) by White police and vigila
[5] Jordan, p. 556.
[6] Richard Florida, “It’s Not Just Zimmerman: Race Matters a Lot in ‘Stand Your Ground Verdicts,’” posted in The Atlantic City Lab, July 16, 2013.
[7] For an in-depth analysis of Judge Nolan’s rulings and instructions to the jury, see Marjorie Cone, “Unbelievable Directions and Instructions from Judge Sway Jury in Zimmerman Trial” in San Diego Free Press, July 18, 2013.
[8] Charles Blow, “The Whole System Failed Trayvon Martin,” in New York Times, July 15, 2013.
[9] Dylan Matthews, “Here’s what you need to know about stop and frisk – and why the courts shut it down,” The Washington Post, August 13, 2013.
[10] Marc Lamont Hill, “Trayvon Martin Was Put on Trial,” Black Enterprise Blogs, July 9, 2013.
[11] Transcript of Anderson Cooper 360 Degrees’ “Exclusive Interview with Juror B-37” aired July 15, 2013 – 20:00 ET
[12] See the video of the press conference called by Angela Corey and her prosecution team:!bbRnxh.

© 2014, Melanie S. Morrison, All Rights Reserved