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As with many of you, Trayvon Martin has been on my mind a lot recently, as has the man who killed him, George Zimmerman. We've shared our feelings about the killing, an act that--based on the significant amount of evidence we've seen so far--appears to me to fit the definition of murder. We've discussed root causes, in particular the almost reflexive suspicion of young black men held by far too many in our society. We've groped for solutions and explored changes we can make going forward.

This weekend I've also been reading about another George whose name looms large in the history of racism in America. George Wallace.

I've been reading The Politics of Rage: George Wallace, the Origins of the New Conservatism, and the Transformation of American Politics by Dan T. Carter, a crucially important book about the man, the white supremacist movement he embodied as Alabama's governor, and how racism has helped shape American politics even down to today.

But I want to focus now on the connections I was making in my mind between George Wallace and George Zimmerman, and of course Trayvon Martin.

I'm reasonably confident you are all familiar with what went on in the Jim Crow South under segregation, so I won't recount too many details. You can refresh your memories of the Civil Rights movement in the U.S. from 1954 to 1968 here.

George Wallace first became Governor of Alabama in January 1963. In discussing what life was like for black Americans in Birmingham, the capital, Fred Shuttlesworth, a co-founder (along with Martin Luther King, Jr.) of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, characterized it as:

very close to hell itself; the Johannesburg of the South.
And it's not like things were much better elsewhere in the states where segregation reigned. We know that black Americans couldn't vote and couldn't attend schools with whites. Beyond those and other important aspects of segregation, we know that at every level of government in virtually the entire South, white supremacy was the guiding philosophy of governance.

I remind you all of these things at a time when we are thinking about and mourning for Trayvon Martin for a very specific reason. This awful history gives me hope.

What? Hope? Yes, hope. Hope because, as you all know, within three short years of the time that hateful little (in every way) man George Wallace proclaimed "segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!" this country had passed a series of laws that made white supremacy illegal. These laws declared that voting rights for all Americans were sacred, and must be protected (something we must continue to fight for today, as we are well aware). These laws declared that discrimination on the basis of race or gender or religion could not stand. These laws put our country on record as saying that George Wallace was wrong, and that Martin Luther King, Jr. was right.

These changes to the law did not solve every problem. Not by a long shot. But they represent a seismic shift in the four hundred year struggle those who believe in equality have waged. They brought an end to the second era of this struggle, the first being the time of legal enslavement. We are now in the third era. George Zimmerman's senseless killing of Trayvon Martin is one of all too many reminders that bigotry and racism are still with us in America, and can still reach out and harm or even kill innocent people.

Let me make one thing crystal clear. I didn't bring up George Wallace, segregation, and the progress won by leaders like King and Shuttlesworth to suggest that things are so good now, and that folks should "calm down" about Trayvon. The last thing I want to do is suggest that people should calm down. Our anger about Trayvon is righteous, and the actions that anger motivates us to take will, I believe, have a positive impact going forward, both in terms of changing attitudes about young black men and boys and, hopefully, changing laws. That anger is helpful, and necessary. Let it flow.

I talked about hope because anger without hope is corrosive. Anger without hope leads to nihilism. It burns through you like an ulcer burns through the wall of your gastrointestinal tract. Anger motivates us to act, but anger combined with hope guides us to act in a positive, constructive way. Hope provides us with a sense that our actions will have an impact. That's why I wrote about hope here today. Let our anger fuse with hope so that we can make a better country for all the Trayvons out there, for all of us.

8:57 AM PT: From the comments [h/t quaoar]:

The most fascinating thing about George Wallace at least to me -- is that day in 1979 when he made an unannounced visit one Sunday to Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, the church where MLK preached.

Confined to a wheelchair from an assassination attempt, Wallace was wheeled to the front of the church and spoke to the congregation.


"I have learned what suffering means. In a way that was impossible {before the shooting}, I think I can understand something of the pain black people have come to endure. I know I contributed to that pain, and I can only ask your forgiveness."

It's things like that that give me hope that people can and do change.


Originally posted to Ian Reifowitz on Mon Mar 26, 2012 at 07:59 AM PDT.

Also republished by Invisible People, Black Kos community, and Barriers and Bridges.

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