Speakers at the downtown rally Saturday for Trayvon Martin evoked the name of another black teen murdered 58 years ago as they urged the Justice Department to open a federal civil rights violation case in Martin’s 2012 death.
“We are the city of Emmett Till,” community activist Rev. Gregory Livingston told a crowd of nearly a 1000 gathered at the Dirksen Federal Plaza.
“We are the city of the 14-year-old Chicago boy who goes to Money, Mississippi and on Aug. 28, 1955, was brutally murdered and his killers were acquitted, like George Zimmerman, and set free,” Livingston said. “Chicago, we must stand our ground.”
History cannot repeat itself, Livingston added, noting that it took nearly 50 years for the Justice Department to reopen Till’s case.
“We don’t have to wait 49 years. We’re demanding right now — reopen the case the Justice Department, [U.S. Attorney General] Eric Holder and President Obama,” he said.
The department opened a case into the Martin shooting last year, but backed down to let the state’s criminal case proceed. The Florida teen was killed as he walked home from a convenience store by Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer. Zimmerman was acquitted July 13 of murder charges, setting off a firestorm of resentment in the black community.
Saturday’s rally in downtown Chicago was part of 100 protests at federal buildings nationwide, organized by Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network (NAN). Chicago’s rally was co-sponsored by WVON and the local NAN chapter.
The two-hour rally was a mix of speeches, music and spoken word performances. Comedian Paul Mooney, rapper M.C. Lyte, Urban League President Andrea Zopp, Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr., and St. Sabina pastor Father Michael Pfleger all spoke. There were calls to economically boycott Florida over the Zimmerman verdict, as well as convening a mass rally in Washington D.C on the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.
Rev. Marshall Hatch, chairman of the LEADER’s Network, said the Martin case has become a symbol in the need for equal justice. It’s also a call to repeal nationwide the “stand your ground laws,” which potentially gives people a license to kill, Hatch said.
Airickca Gordon Taylor, a cousin of Till, spoke on the family’s behalf.
She said the family — including Wheeler Parker and Simeon Wright, who were there the night Till was kidnapped — were stunned by the Zimmerman verdict. Taylor, who did not know Till, said she now understands what Mamie Till Mobley must have felt 58 years ago.
“All I can think was the festering sores of injustice were torn open all over again for my family. I understood why they shed the tears 58 years later; the wound is still there, unhealed,” Taylor said. “I charge our youth today to remain vigilant, remain vocal and visible. Don’t lose your momentum because the past is now your present.”
Emotions still ran high a week after Zimmerman’s not guilty verdict. That prompted President Barack Obama to make an unexpected speech last Friday on the subject. He wanted to put in context the gut-wrenching reaction blacks had about the verdict.
Obama noted that Trayvon Martin could have been him 35 years ago. But the president also said blacks view the verdict through “a set of experiences and a history that doesn’t go away.”
“The African-American community is also knowledgeable that there is a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws, everything from the death penalty to enforcement of our drug laws,” Obama said. “And that ends up having an impact in terms of how people interpret the case.”
But 18-year-old Marcus Hines came out Saturday to show his support for Trayvon. He urged society to view young black men as individuals instead of painting them with all the same brush.
“They put us all in the same category and that is not right,” he said. “We can’t move on until they all see us differently.”
Vacationing in Chicago from Boston, Colin Wilkins and Andi Sutton stumbled upon Saturday’s rally. The couple, who are white, said they have been following the Zimmerman case and were appalled by the verdict.
“I really want to stand up for my beliefs that there really is no peace until there is justice and no justice till there’s piece,” Sutton said.
Charles Perry, director of community organizing for the Westside Health Authority, attended the rally with his four great-nephews, all under the age of 7. He called this period in history a teachable moment in understanding racial profiling.
“We don’t want these young black men growing up thinking that they can’t walk through a community,” Perry said, “without being accosted by an individual who say he is patrolling the neighborhood when in all actuality, he is out hunting black men.”