What Would MLK Jr. Have Said About The Trayvon Martin Case?


At the risk of wading into the morass created by the media of late, here are my two cents about the Trayvon Martin case, which ended with George Zimmerman being found not guilty of both second degree murder and manslaughter. I’ll be as brief as I can, because even though I tried to avoid the 24-hour media coverage, I got a big enough dose of it to last me a long, long time, and I’m sure you’re feeling the same way.

The liberal pundits seem to have come to a consensus: the case is just the latest example of a long history of black victimization at the hands of racist would-be vigilantes.

The conservative pundits have also come to a consensus: the jury recognized that this was just a simple case of self-defense. Case closed.

Neither group of pundits have it right.

This clearly was not a simple case of self-defense, because Zimmerman initiated the confrontation by getting out of his car and following Martin. Martin had every reason to feel threatened by Zimmerman. There is no doubt in my mind that Zimmerman is largely morally and even causally responsible for initiating the chain of events that led to his killing Martin. However, the legal question focused on whether the prosecution had proven beyond a reasonable doubt that Zimmerman did not justifiably shoot Martin in self-defense at the moment he pulled the trigger. The problem with the conservative consensus is that it ignores the questions of moral and causal responsibility in favor of the question of (mere) legal responsibility.

The liberal consensus, by contrast, at best downplays the legal question in favor of the moral and causal questions, and at worst conflates all three of them. Although I can’t blame liberals for using the case as a springboard to talk about general social ills, including the sort of implicit racism that seems to have led Zimmerman to single out Martin for suspicion, those social ills were not on trial in Sanford, nor should they have been. George Zimmerman was, and he was being tried on specific charges under Florida law. The jury decided that the prosecution did not prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Zimmerman was guilty as charged. I defer to the jury’s opinion about that. I think that other liberals should do so as well.

It seems that the crucial fact revealed in the trial was that at least late in the confrontation, Martin was on top of Zimmerman and acting at least momentarily as the aggressor. We can argue about whether he was morally justified in reacting that way, or even possibly legally justified (I think it depends on further details that we will never know). But this apparent fact allowed Zimmerman to convincingly claim that he acted in self-defense. My contention is this: if Martin had not gotten into a physical altercation with Zimmerman, either Zimmerman would not have shot him, or else Zimmerman would have been found guilty of murder. Hard as it might have been to resist the urge to punch Zimmerman in the nose, resisting that urge probably would have saved Martin’s life. Yes, his pride might have been wounded by his not striking out or striking back, but his pride could have healed.

I believe that Martin Luther King Jr. would have agreed: Trayvon made at least a serious tactical error, one that ultimately led not only to his being killed, but also to Zimmerman being found not guilty. The wisdom of non-violence needs to be internalized.

There has been a lot of discussion on the web about what black parents should tell their children in the wake of the not-guilty verdict. Here’s a good example of it at a blog run by the Atlanta Journal Constitution. I am not a parent and I am not black, but as a human being who cares about every person, I’d like to humbly offer some advice that I haven’t yet seen offered. Whatever else you tell your children, including all of the ugly history in the background, pass along this tidbit of practical wisdom that paid huge dividends during the Civil Rights era: if you get approached by someone asking offensive questions that don’t deserve to be answered – even by someone seeking to provoke you; even by someone physically lashing out at you first – don’t escalate the situation by striking back unless you absolutely have to. Hard as that might be, exercising such self-control puts you on the moral high ground, and if worse comes to worst, on the legal high ground as well.

Here’s a brief video in which MLK mentions the training in non-violence and non-retaliation given to children before exposing them to the hostility surrounding the demonstrations in the 1960s. (Of course, Trayvon Martin was walking home at night, not demonstrating, but I believe that MLK’s philosophy was entirely general, growing as it did out of his deeply held Christian convictions.)