Trayvon Martin, the Legacy of Lynching, and the Role of White Women

melanie-5-25-15By Melanie S. Morrison. Re-posted from LivingFormations.


*Five years ago , George Zimmerman was exonerated for the killing of Trayvon Martin. Three years ago today, Sandra Bland was found dead in a Waller County Texas jail cell. Just this week the Department of Justice announced a re-opening of its investigation into the lynching of Emmett Till.  It is in this context we share this piece. Melanie S. Morrison reflects on legacies of lynching and the particular roles white women and cultures surrounding white womanhood have played in the killing of Black people and the failure of any system to hold anyone responsible. Morrison reflects as she simultaneously steeps herself  in the courageous legacy of Lillian E. Smith, as an exceptionally rare white southern woman who dared challenge white supremacy and who knew all too well the role white women and white “liberals” play in sustaining it. We have much history to reckon with as we seek to do our work today. -Jennifer Harvey

Some problems we share as women, some we do not. You [white women] fear your children will grow up to join the patriarchy and testify against you; we [black women] fear our children will be dragged from a car and shot down in the street, and you will turn your backs on the reasons they are dying. – Audre Lorde

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. Smith was a Southern white writer and activist who, decades before Brown versus the Board of Education, worked to dismantle segregation and white supremacy. Writing in the 1930s and 40s, Smith named with scalpel-like precision the hypocrisy and complicity of “liberal” white Southerners who refused to condemn lynching and other forms racial terror. [1]

When I reserved my cabin at the Lillian Smith Center, 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 undergirded 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 because the politics, patterns, and policies of lynching were brazenly reproduced in that Sanford, Florida courtroom.

It is important to recall that all the main players in the trial were white. Judge Debra Nelson, who presided over the case and made critical decisions that affected its outcome, was white. Zimmerman’s defense lawyers, Don West and Mark O’Mara, were white. The entire prosecution team was white, with the possible exception of Special Prosecutor Angela Corey, a granddaughter of Syrian immigrants. And five of the six jurors were white women.

Before the trial got underway, Judge Nelson forbade the prosecution from speaking about racial profiling. Only the word “profiling” could be used. 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, Special Prosecutor 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.

Special Prosecutor Corey may have believed she could not win a conviction 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,” was to pour salt in raw, open wounds. That 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. They did everything in their power to paint a portrait of Trayvon Martin that matched white America’s stereotype of a menacing, dangerous 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. Columnist 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.

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.

We might have assumed that the jury would dismiss such an outrageous claim as the last ditch efforts of a desperate attorney. How could a sidewalk be seen as a lethal weapon comparable to a loaded gun? Surely, the jurors would not fall for such cheap theatrics.

Problem was: the old racial tropes still have power because the imprint of lynching continues to shape white 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 being African American and Latino males. 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.’”

Three days after the not guilty verdict was announced on July 13, 2013, CNN correspondent Anderson Cooper obtained an “exclusive interview” with one of the white jurors. Throughout the interview, she displayed sympathy for, and identification with, George Zimmerman. She acknowledged that she felt bad for Trayvon Martin and his parents, sad for their loss, but she described George Zimmerman 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 Martin. She regretted the loss of life, but she believed Martin was the aggressor who got mad and threw the first punch. She wished Zimmerman hadn’t gotten out of the car, but that didn’t make him the aggressor; Zimmerman “just got in a little bit too deep.” Disavowing that race played any role in George Zimmerman’s actions, she thought Trayvon Martin’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 failed to press for clarification at that point or ask whether she believed George Zimmerman would have pursued a white teenager who was walking slowly in the rain. Would Zimmerman have gotten out of his car to follow that teenager? Would Zimmerman have used words like “those punks…they always get away” if the teenager had been white? Cooper didn’t follow 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 racist images associated with black male bodies – were 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.

After the verdict was announced, the all-white team of prosecuting attorneys gathered on a podium and State Prosecutor Corey declared, “We are so proud to stand before you…

Proud? George Zimmerman had just been exonerated. The prosecution team had failed to win a conviction and justice had been denied, but no outrage was voiced. No show of concern was expressed 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 did not 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 questions or regrets about their verdict, Corey showered praise on the jury for displaying 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 did not 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 did not 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 had 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.

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 Sabrina Fulton’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 hold sway over white Americans.

When extrajudicial lynching was at its height, protection of white women was the quintessential justification advanced by white mobs and all who failed to bring them to justice. Some white women broke rank with their would-be protectors and organized campaigns to abolish lynching. [2] But far more white women colluded with lynching either by passive assent or by active participation. White men were not the sole perpetrators of lynchings; white women brought their children to spectacle lynchings, sometimes hoisting them on their shoulders for a better view of the desecrating, brutalizing violence. And there were white women who lied and named black assailants as a way of avoiding being caught in a morally perilous situation. [3]

The complex and contradictory roles of white women in the heinous history of lynching has largely been repressed or ignored by contemporary white feminists. African American feminists such as Ida B. Wells, bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Ruby Sales, and Emma Coleman Jordan have consistently challenged white women to own, face, and grapple with this critical part of their history. [4]

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” of lynching upon which white women’s power exists. [5] If we fail to 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 and author of Murder on Shades Mountain: The Legal Lynching of Willie Peterson and the Struggle for Justice in Jim Crow Birmingham (Duke University Press, 2018). (Click on the link to order Murder on Shades Mountain at a 30% discount; use coupon code E18SHADE during checkout.) You can follow Melanie on her website:


[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 literature about white-led campaigns to abolish lynching, see Jacquelyne Dowd Hall, Revolt Against Chivalry: Jesse Daniel Ames and the Women’s Campaign Against Lynching, Columbia University Press, Revised Edition, 1993; Crystal M. Feimster, Southern Horrors: Women and the Politics of Rape and Lynching, Harvard University Press.

[3] For literature about 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.

[4] See Ida B. Wells, “Miss Willard’s Attitude,” in On Lynching. Wells calls Francis Willard, leader of the 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.”

[5] Emma Coleman Jordon, “Crossing the River of Blood Between Us,” 580.

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