When Rosa Parks sparked the modern Civil Rights Movement by refusing to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Ala. on Dec. 1, 1955, many accepted the notion that she was simply tired and didn’t want to get up.
But the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. and other civil rights veterans have long detested that simple description, saying she was a tired, meek woman. Instead, they contend that Parks was like many African-Americans at the time: angry and upset over the lynching three months earlier of Emmett Till in Mississippi.
Till was pulled from his relative’s home in Money, Miss., by a group of white men for allegedly whistling at a white woman in a store earlier in the day on Aug. 28, 1955. When his badly disfigured and decomposed body was found, Till’s relatives were unable to identify his body.
Till’s mom, Mamie, ordered his casket to be opened so the world could see what was done to her son. And when Jet Magazine and the Chicago Defender put his face on their covers, that image was seared in the minds of a generation of African-Americans.
The force by which Till’s death hit black America and led to a massive movement for justice and equality is unprecedented in America history. And as many African-Americans today express anger, bitterness, rage and frustration with the not-guilty verdict of George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin, the seeds of discontent are blossoming into a 21st-century social justice movement.
It is not to suggest that the deaths of Till and Martin were the same or were the result of similar circumstances. No, my comparison is in the visceral reaction their two deaths have generated and in the potential aftermath.
There have been numerous stories I’ve covered in my 21 years as a journalist, most of them with black-focused media outlets, and rarely has a story of injustice generated the level of attention as the Trayvon Martin murder.
Young African-Americans, in particular, have been affected because Trayvon was only 17. For them and their parents, this is simple: How bad is a country when a 17-year-old walking home from the store and minding his own business is identified as a suspect, followed and eventually killed?
As folks have expressed anger, with some taking to the streets in protest, many are asking: “What now?”
From Hollywood to cities nationwide, folks wanting to take some sort of action have flooded my inbox and social media accounts.
On the night of the Zimmerman verdict, I was on a conference call with a number of others around the world expressing their anger. The next day, more than 2,000 folks were on a conference call.
What we are seeing are efforts to repeal the controversial stand your ground law in Florida. Other issues include education, mandatory minimums, voting registration and many others.
The death of Trayvon has become a rallying cry for people of conscience to step up, stand up and advocate for change.
No one knows with certainty if this moment will lead to a lasting movement, but as of right now, there is a tremendous focus on mobilization and organization. And if that’s the case, we will look back and say that the death of Trayvon Martin was the catalyst that mobilized this post-civil rights movement generation to move to action.
Rosa and other ancestral freedom fighters would be proud.
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Roland S. Martin is host and managing editor of TV One Cable Network’s “Washington Watch” and senior analyst for the Tom Joyner Morning Show, where he is heard daily.