After Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman and James Chaney were kidnapped, murdered and buried in a dam on a Mississippi farm – with the apparent help of local police -- the FBI stepped in to assure the killers would be brought to justice.
The resulting “Mississippi burning” trial, while imperfect, nevertheless returned the first-ever convictions for the killing of a civil rights workers in that state.
Those who sincerely believe institutional racism has not ebbed in the past 49 years or who for their own reasons would like others to believe it no doubt find satisfaction in the street demonstrations that greeted the acquittal of George Zimmerman and in the possibility that the Justice Department might still use civil rights laws to circumvent double-jeopardy safeguards and prosecute Zimmerman in last year's shooting death of Trayvon Martin.
But this is not 1964, the Florida jury that acquitted him has not been accused of Klan sympathies and the FBI itself long ago concluded that Zimmerman -- a self-appointed neighborhood watchman who shot Martin while on patrol – was not a homicidal racist hiding behind a badge.
So whatever the circumstances that resulted in Martin's unfortunate death, the politicians, activists and entertainers claiming to find proof of America's lingering racism in the verdict are only exposing their own biases. And that goes double for the mobs claiming to seek justice for Martin by doing violence in his name.
The purposefully anachronistic coverage of the trial by the media – many of whom insisted on calling the biracial Zimmerman a “white Hispanic” to stress his alleged bias – produced its own tragic irony. Some people, it seems, still want race to influence justice.
In order to believe the self-serving racial hustlers who claim the Zimmerman verdict represents open season on young black men, one also has to believe that not only did Zimmerman follow and shoot Martin because of race but also that jurors with no obvious history of racist behavior were willing to look the other way.
But according to McClatchy newspapers, FBI agents who answer to the very attorney general now considering a civil rights case against Zimmerman concluded that racial bias not a factor in Martin's shooting. More to the point, a juror has told reporters she believed Zimmerman shot Martin in self-defense after being attacked.
I can't say for certain why Zimmerman considered Martin “suspicious,” just as I do not know which person began the fight that ended in Martin's death. But it is clear to any objective observer that there was reasonable doubt as to whether Zimmerman intended to kill as the prosecution alleged.
Disagreement with the verdict is legitimate. Violence, cynical self-promotion at the public expense and the possibility of a Justice Department show trial are not. The jury has spoken, and unless someone can produce evidence members were motivated by bias or disregarded evidence, that should be the end of it.
Attorney General Eric Holder's Justice Department, however, is reportedly
soliciting information about Zimmerman that might bolster a civil rights case. Any off-color joke, any slip of the tongue, can now be reported anonymously to a DOJ email address.
I recently had a long, thought-provoking and respectful conversation with a friend of mine, a prominent local civil rights leader who is convinced that he and one of his children had been denied jobs or job interviews because of their race. Both are well-educated, intelligent and successful but sincerely believe the deck remains stacked against them despite undeniable gains. He had no real evidence to back up his claims, just years of personal experience and centuries of history.
My experience would not justify his suspicions but neither could I disprove them. So I have to respect them, as I respect him.
Our legal system is like that. Sometimes we like the outcome and sometimes we don't. But suspicion alone hardly justifies what has happened in the wake of the Zimmerman verdict and that unrest, if allowed to escalate, will only guarantee that there are more still victims followed by an ever-growing legion of avengers.
Schwerner, Goodman, Cheney and too many other civil rights martyrs of various colors deserve better. And so do we.