On a rainy day in April 1965, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. ascended the steps of the Boston Common bandstand to deliver a speech. His topic was school desegregation. An estimated 22,000 people braved the cold spring showers to hear the civil rights leader.
On another cold and rainy April day nearly fifty years after King’s visit, the Boston Common bandstand was again host to the fight for civil rights in the United States. Over 150 people gathered this morning at a rally organized by the Boston branch of the NAACP to demand justice for Trayvon Martin, a black high-school student shot and killed in Sanford FL on February 26.
Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman was well known to Sanford police for placing 911 calls in which he would report the presence of black men in the area. Zimmerman acknowledges that he left his vehicle expressly to pursue Martin. Yet, for over a month after the killing, Florida law enforcement agencies construed Zimmerman’s shooting of Martin as an action protected by state law. On April 11th, following intensive media coverage and nation-wide political protest, a Florida special prosecutor announced that Zimmerman would be charged with second-degree murder.
For the organizers and speakers at today’s Boston Common rally, Zimmerman’s arrest is a small victory. Speakers emphasized that racial injustice runs very deep in American society; the struggle for justice did not begin on February 26 with Martin’s murder and will not stop with the arrest of the man who killed him.
Jamahrl Crawford, of the Blackstonian, emphasized that Martin’s murder is not an isolated incident: “From eight to eighty, whether you have on a suit or something like this” — Crawford pointed towards his hoodie — “it matters not. If you are a black man or a boy you are ‘suspicious.’” Crawford argued that the media have perpetrated “an entire dehumanization of black men,” with the result that police and men like Zimmerman “have a blank check to deal with black men in any way they wish.” Crawford’s comments were a condensed version of the presentation he gave at a community forum at Hibernian Hall in Dudley Square the previous Friday.
Crawford was also the first of many speakers at the bandstand to draw connections between the Trayvon Martin case and legislation currently under consideration in Massachusetts. Senate Bill 661 (“An Act relative to the common defense”) and House Bill 1568 (“An Act relative to civil rights and public safety”) closely parallel the law which Sanford police cited as their reason for declining to arrest George Zimmerman in the days and weeks after he killed Martin. Similar laws have been adopted in two dozen states. The National Rifle Association and the corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) are key promoters of this legislation, commonly referred to as “Stand your ground” laws.
Larry Ellison, President of the Massachusetts Association of Minority Law Enforcement Officers, spoke firmly against both SB 661 itself and the name the bill’s supporters have claimed for it. “This is not about ‘Standing your ground,’” Ellison stated, “A more accurate name would be ‘The last man standing tells his version.’ This law will not help [police officers] do our jobs.”
All told, there were a dozen speakers at the NAACP-organized rally. Paul Marcus spoke from his experience as a white anti-racist activist in Community Change, an organization founded in 1968 and based on the recognition that, “For a long time we were talking about a black problem, when what we have is a white problem.”
Other speakers noted the penetration of racism beyond white society and observed that Zimmerman identifies as Hispanic. Alejandra St. Guillen called on attendees to consider the “role of skin color in how we view one another even in our own minority communities.” St. Guillen is executive director of ¿Oíste?, a Latino civic education organization in Massachusetts.
Rev. Catherine Senghas of the Unitarian Universalist Urban Ministry, affirmed that “We must stand not only for love, but against everything that divides us.” Darnell Williams, President of the Urban League of Eastern Massachusetts, spoke of his experience visiting Sanford FL and meeting with Trayvon Martin’s parents.
Other speakers included State Representatives Gloria Fox and Carlos Henriquez, as well as Michael Curry, President of the Boston Branch of the NAACP.
Boston City Councillor Charles C. Yancey reminded attendees of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech on the same site in April 1965. Reflections on the history of the civil rights movement were balanced by expectations for its future, as Boston University law student Chelsea Lewis noted the presence of many young people at the day’s rally.
This was only the latest in a series of actions in Boston in response to the murder of Trayvon Martin. On Saturday, an estimated 500 people marched from Ruggles station to Dudley Square. After the rally today, attendees walked across the Common to the Statehouse. There they participated in a lobbying campaign against the so-called “Stand your ground” law. The law is scheduled for a vote by the Joint Committee on the Judiciary on April 27.