Walking while black

I will never forget my freshman year in college. University of Florida in Gainesville. Fletcher Hall in the Murphree area, where I lived. I think about the now completed not-guilty trial of George Zimmerman here in Florida. I compare the times to now.

Trayvor Martin
Trayvon Martin

Put on trial was a dead, 17-year-old kid for walking in a neighborhood while being black. His name was Trayvon Martin. It was not Zimmerman on trial, I insist, but the black boy he shot for wearing a hood and strolling through a neighborhood while black – and packing candy…

Not guilty – a jury composed of six white women decided. Zimmerman is free while the dead kid was killed for daring to walk at night with a skin tone too dark for the redneck south.

Which brings me back to my freshman dorm room at the University of Florida.

It was the fall of my freshman year. 1970. President at the University of Florida then was an old redneck bastard by the name of Stephen O’Connell. Yes he was a redneck, a racist and an old son of a bitch… We had recently protested the lack of black students at the university – about 15,000 students back then. Less than 200 were black… Not much better for Latinos, by the way. O’Connell’s name now hangs in the university’s arena where the basketball team plays. Oh how we haven’t changed: We honor a racist!

A group of students managed to escort O’Connell from his plush, presidential office on University Drive – or was it 13th Street? It’s been a long time, I know. It was also my first exposure to the Deep South and its cops – and their not so friendly German Shepherds. Scary. I was too idealistic and very naïve back then. If I’d known what I know now… I don’t think I’d have the courage to do what so many of us did.

Weeks later I was returning from a conference on campus where the main speaker was the Reverend Ralph Abernathy. He was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s successor at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (the organization MLK headed before he was murdered).

I was walking home and feeling energized. Charged with the power of words from a Dr. King protégé. As I entered my dorm I headed for the stairs. There were four small apartments per floor in a very old, four-floors building. My room was on the left and to the back on the third. As I reached the second floor, hanging was a white dummy with a sign that read, “Cuban Go Home.”

Imagine that. I was 18-years-old. And I’ll admit to being terrified – and also wanting to kill some one. In the end it turned out to be a bad joke. But one with a deeper meaning: Don’t forget where you are and who you are.

Now close your eyes and put yourself in Trayvon’s shoes the night he was shot dead. He walked in a neighborhood – a gated community – not accustomed to seeing a black youth dressed like you’d see so many kids dressed, almost anywhere. Yes, and with a hoody covering his head – did that make him a criminal?

Then there’s the wannabe cop and vigilante George Zimmerman. Wannabe because Zimmerman had tried and failed to become a cop. He became a neighborhood watch vigilante with a gun instead.

Zimmerman called the police. “A strange black man was walking in the neighborhood,” he may have said. “Don’t pursue,” the police instructed him. An order he ignored.

Who knows what Zimmerman later said to Martin. And what Martin’s response may have been. The fact is the result was a deadly altercation with a 17-year-old dead from a gunshot wound. He had gone to a convenience store to pick-up iced tea and some candy. Skittles were found on him.

Can you imagine?

A 17-year-old kid shot dead by a vigilante with a gun. A young black man chased while walking home in the wrong neighborhood.

Leads me to wonder if my adventure in President O’Connell’s office 43 years ago was worth the tear gas? And the fear instilled in me by those snarling Shepherds…

For some reason Saturday’s verdict hit me like a runaway train – head on and without expecting it. I’ve tried to put myself in Trayvon’s parents’ shoes. Might I be able to deal with such pain? And for what?

I am still trying to understand it. I’ve come to the conclusion that little has changed.

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