The U.S. Justice Department has moved to investigate the killing of Trayvon Martin. This increases the likelihood that the incident last February will be viewed as a Federal racial hate crime. George Zimmerman could at least then be arrested and held until we know more about what happened. And justice may yet be done.
Our fears and prejudices no matter what the color of our skin shackle us and prevent us from doing the right thing, of loving and caring for those around us. Injustice thrives in an environment of fear and prejudice where we discriminate on the basis of someone’s bodily characteristics or national origin or sexual orientation and fail to see the real person.
Back in the early 1970’s, when I had thought the largest part of the heavy lifting had been done to gain justice for people of color in our nation I was shocked by just how far we yet had to come. Evidently, that has not changed nearly as much as we hoped and believed. I was working at an area private golf club with a championship professional 18-hole course of the highest quality in a lily white Chicago suburb where I lived. Being white, my presence in the town I grew up in was not questioned. I had easy passage wherever I might wish to go.
My boss was a black man of middle age, a solid tree of a man and with kindness and good heartedness to spare. He was the head groundskeeper for the course and had care of the centerpiece of the club’s business in his hands. No doubt, being black, he got paid perhaps one half or a third of what he’d be worth if he was white. I knew that as a skinny, naïve kid of 17, just the age of Trayvon Martin. Every day, the man finished up at around four p.m. and walked by the most direct route down our town’s main street to the train station to take him home to a loving wife and children in Chicago. Every morning at dawn he returned.
Despite my youth, he took me under his wing, and taught me more about landscaping and the work ethic and we even shared our lunches; my deviled egg for a couple of his carrots and so forth. The crew was dominated by about twenty Mexican men in their twenties and thirties, themselves undocumented no doubt, and all living in a dormitory as if it were some sort of large slave cabin right on the club’s property. They all were superb working men themselves. They also in all likelihood got paid little more than I did. They laughed and smiled at me and I smiled back. I was barely scraping by and learning little in Spanish class so I understood little. But we more than got along. They put up with me.
One day, my boss who had been mentoring me whether I knew it or not joined me for lunch, said my work was good, and then told me in confidence what had happened the day before. He had been walking home to get the train right down the sidewalk with nothing at all but a wallet, train pass and ID just as he always did every day. Oh, sometimes he got a soda in the pharmacy in town if he was thirsty before getting on board. Police rolled up and took him into custody, not believing what he said about being the head groundskeeper at the club and that he was heading for the train and home.
It turned out that a hysterical white middle aged suburban woman somewhere along that street had telephoned police: she said and I still remember what she told police: “there’s a black man walking right by my house!”
This was such a rare event in my town at that time that it could bring white people into hysterics just having a black man walk down a sidewalk in broad daylight.
My boss was questioned by police for almost three hours. Finally, they got ahold of someone in authority at the golf club that identified him and assured the police he was no threat and was telling the truth. My boss worried when it would happen again. He was not beaten or anything but he said the police in my town seemed to enjoy giving him the third degree and telling him all sorts of things that might happen—all bad if he did not fess up and admit he was up to no good.
I worked that job just one summer. I don’t know if that ever happened to him again. But in my memories of what it means to be a man, and someone to look up to, my father, Ernie Banks my favorite player on the Chicago Cubs, and this man loomed very large that year. They still do!
As for the twenty or so Mexicans they continued to provide first class work, living right on the property and no doubt sending all the money they could to their families in Mexico. Then a fire occurred in the dormitory building. Four of the men I had worked with died. I assume of smoke inhalation. There was some sort of investigation. It was hushed up but people around town drove past the club, saw the gutted building and talked. It was a club for rich and well-connected business people and their families.
So when I heard about Trayvon Martin, some 17 days after his murder, and noted he was just walking home on a sidewalk while black like the man I so looked up to that year and forever will, it made me sad. Though my boss was not hurt or charged with any crime, it showed me the petty indignities of race prejudice first hand. It made me sick then, and it still does.
I’m happy to say that just a few years later, working at another job in town I was able to serve a black family that had actually moved into my town and were now neighbors, well across town in just as nice a section as where I lived. And that they by the looks of them had more money than my family did. That made me feel like the world was being turned right side up somehow. Maybe that was a real sign of progress. I could tell you something about that but that is another story. In the meantime we have work to do to make this nation live up to its creed of all men and women being given equal treatment under the law and being given the chance to be friends and not those we fear based on skin color or where you come from or who you are.
We can still fear the genuine criminal but we have to re-define that image in our minds so that we do not assume anything about someone just because of how they look. It is something that even African-Americans struggle with because there are still a lot of people who respond as George Zimmerman did. My son is the very same age as Trayvon Martin. Due to the equally miraculous incident of adoptive parenthood my son is black too but from the Southern part of India. How are people going to respond to him being in their towns? We have a daughter of color from the same place too. An eldest biological daughter has given me a multi-racial grand-kid.
So it hit me. How would I feel if it were my son? I know how I’d feel and so I am feeling a whole range of emotions tonight thinking about the Martin family in Sanford, Florida and I express like so many others the horror at what happened, and my condolences for their loss. Being a loving parent will do that to you.
We all have a job to do. Bitterness and racial hatred can attack anyone no matter what the color of their skin is. Let’s get on with making the nation what Dr. King and so many others dreamed of. Forty-four years and more since his death is a hell of a long time to wait to realize those dreams. There is no time to waste.
Dr. Thomas Martin Sobottke
Struggles for Justice