Black boys became criminalized. I was in constant dread for their lives, because they were targets everywhere. They still are. ~Toni Morrison

Perhaps, one day, we will think of Trayvon Martin in the same vein we think of Emmett Till. The publicity surrounding Till’s murder so horrified black America that it galvanized a generation to mobilize through direct action on behalf of civil and human rights. Till did not die in vain thanks to the  courage of his mother, Mamie Till Mobley. She allowed an open casket at Till’s funeral. The distorted mangled face and body would be publicized in Jet, according to Mobley,  so that “all the world [could] see what they did to my son!”

Till’s death was the match that lit and inflamed black Americans to over turn Jim Crow’s personal debasement and fear. Till was not the only one to be heinously murdered. Throughout the South unprovoked black murders were daily occurrences. Nine years earlier, in 1946, in Monroe, Georgia an angry white mob killed George Dorsey, 28, his wife Mae Murray Dorsey, 23, his sister, Dorothy Dorsey Malcom, 20, and Roger Malcom, 24. Neither the local police nor the FBI did much in this assault.  Nor is Martin’s case the only egregious case of a racist killing in the United States, the murderous hit and run killing of James Anderson in Mississippi was recently resolved. However, maybe, just maybe, Martin’s case will be flammable enough to galvanize  us to fight against the criminalizing black Americans. Trayvon’s life and death were determined by imaging him to be a criminal.

The criminalization of black Americans throughout the 20th century is a staggering, as well as burdensome, historical legacy that began with the convict-leasing system. Trayvon’s murder must be placed in a greater material and intellectual context that includes eugenics, I.Q. testing and even Richard Wright’s Native Son’s characterization of  Bigger Thomas. A variety of scholars—Michelle Alexander, Cheryl Hicks, Khalil Muhammad, Randall Kennedy, and Douglas Blackmon have recently put the 20th century criminalization of black Americans in historical and legal perspective. These scholars are must read for all of us who wish to add depth of understanding to their rightful anger and disenchantment with social forces that punish black Americans disproportionately through incarceration and random police shootings.

Although, these engaged scholars have given us critical understanding they are not movement organizers. Analysis is essential to our understanding and informs our movement activities, but analysis alone does not make a movement.

The protest and outrage around the horrible policing in Sanford, Florida has been tremendous and an important intervention into a terrible injustice. Protest has forced the state of Florida to intervene into the case and now George Zimmerman, the alleged murderer of Trayvon, will be brought to trial for 2nd degree murder. This protest has planted the seeds of a movement and we must water it.

Trayvon’s death must  lead to a national movement and not simply a fair criminal trial in Florida. This movement must begin by challenging the Florida’s laws on the books that give credence to stand your ground law. The thousands upon thousands who have photographed themselves in hoodies must do more. Here are a few concrete suggestions to start a movement against black criminalization:

  • In every community we must hold forums about the affects and effects of criminal statues and ordinances.
  • Civic groups must contact their local Bar Associations and ask criminal lawyers to review recent state criminal statues and explain what impact they have on young black people.
  • Judges, District Attorneys, State representatives and Senators, as our representatives, can be requested to come to community forums and communities can inquire into state statues.
  • We can request Legal Aid to come before communities and inquire as why so many poor or indigent black defendants are asked to make plea deals that
  • Prison wardens are public employees and our tax dollars are being used to warehouse young black men and women. Prison officials can be summoned to community forums to explain what is going on to improve the lives of those incarcerated.
  • Meet our local police chiefs and their command as a coalition of citizens regarding racial profiling.
  • Begin or resume court watches to determine whether or not judges or properly and fairly sentencing defendants who are black.
  • Work with area colleges and think-tanks to track the statistical data of incarceration in our community and jury pools.
  • Find out how many convicted in your state cannot vote.
  • Write out local media outlets demanding that they give better coverage to African Americans who are accused of crimes.
  • Established a national drive through organizations like the NAACP, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the National Urban League.

It is important that Trayvon Martin’s tragic death, like Emmet Till’s before, inspire oura generation  to overturn laws as Dr. Clarence Lang suggested on Monday that began with the “war on drugs.” Criminal laws alongside of deindustrialization  have been ruinous to the lives of young black people. Let us hope and work to make  Trayvon’s  murder  an important signpost of our struggle against black  criminalization. This young man’s untimely death must be our bloody flag galvanizing and mobilizing us to build a new society where any youngster can walk down an American street without being a suspect or a profiled as a sinister fantastical image.