As my community struggles with the outcome of the George Zimmerman trial, I share much of the expressed frustration. The NAACP convention in Orlando offered additional moments of reflection and calls for the Justice Department to pursue civil rights charges against George Zimmerman. Summing up African-American sentiments, President Obama’s comments about the need for national dialogue offered hope to some and generated predictable backlash from others. While these actions and the sentiments they represent are understandable, history’s harsh truth—that race and citizenship often clash in Florida—remains under discussed.
The legal system that freed George Zimmerman is a reflection of a society and culture that has criminalized and dehumanized black skin in Florida since the nineteenth century. Slavery equated being black, in practice and law, to a lesser state of existence. The Union’s victory ended slavery, but did not remove ingrained anti-black sentiments. By the 1890s African-American citizens faced laws that stifled voting rights and political participation. Efforts by Florida residents to reclaim those rights triggered a violent reprisal in the 1920 Ocoee
riot. Simultaneously, blacks faced a systematized criminalization of their identity. Charges of sexual assault triggered lynchings, killings, and the destruction of black property. This pattern led to the destruction of Rosewood
, Florida in 1923. Vagrancy laws criminalized blacks in the public sphere and led to labor exploitation. The oral histories collected by Zora Neale Hurston
in Polk County, Florida offer a rare and piercing record of the harsh environment in turpentine and sawmill camps that were 90% black in 1928.
African Americans across the South persevered, but they were wary of white individuals, organizations, and institutions. Despite obstacles, African-American leaders like Harry T. Moore
, the Florida field secretary for the NAACP, pushed for blacks to be treated fairly under the law in Florida. In the 1930s, Moore filed the first lawsuit to equalize teacher pay in the South. By the 1940s, he wrote letters
to the governor and newspapers protesting lynching and police brutality. By 1944, after Thurgood Marshall's landmark victory in Smith v. Allwright ended the white-only Democratic primary, Moore organized the Progressive Voters’ League and registered African-American voters as Democrats. By 1949, 31% of eligible African Americans were registered voters and 10,000 NAACP members were active in 63 branches across the state. Moore's activism stressed African-American legal rights and the government’s responsibility to protect those rights. In retaliation, on Christmas Day 1951, Moore and his wife were fatally wounded when a bomb exploded beneath the floorboards of their home in Mims
The consequences of these actions have been detrimental for black hopes and deterministic for white expectations. History informs public dialogue and societal assumptions. In his post-victory comments
Mark O'Mara, George Zimmerman’s attorney, scornfully admonished the press and public, arguing that the state would not have pursued the case if Zimmerman were black. Wrenching in its tactlessness, this comment brings into focus the gulf between white and black on how race intersects with the law. We can rightly claim 1960s civil right activism ended Jim Crow segregation, but unlearned lessons linger for both races. They persist in the perception that African-American men are strong
, they persist in the assumption that African-American women are sassy
. In short, whites continue to see African-Americans in the context of an otherness that limits the substance of their citizenship. If we are to gain anything by this calamity, it must at least entail a recognition that the suppositions triggering these events were born of an unresolved racial history.