Trayvon Protesters Should Target System

Bob Dylan Sang of Racist Killers as 'Only Pawns in Game'

Missed Point: After the killing of Trayvon Martin, protesters have rediscovered the old Bob Dylan song ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.’ Unfortunately they missed Dylan’s main point, which was that a racist system is more to blame than any one killer.
getty images
Missed Point: After the killing of Trayvon Martin, protesters have rediscovered the old Bob Dylan song ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.’ Unfortunately they missed Dylan’s main point, which was that a racist system is more to blame than any one killer.

By J.J. Goldberg

Published April 05, 2012, issue of April 13, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

The death of Trayvon Martin has given new life to an old Bob Dylan protest song about a 1963 racial murder, “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” At least three different takeoffs are circulating on the Internet, all identically titled “The Lonesome Death of Trayvon Martin.” And yet, they all miss Dylan’s point. And their mistake helps illuminate the most troubling aspect of the Trayvon Martin case: the way in which it has divided Americans instead of uniting us.

Dylan’s song concerned a middle-aged black barmaid, Hattie Carroll, who was beaten to death by a drunken white reveler at a Baltimore charity ball in February 1963. Her killer, William Zantzinger, a wealthy, well-connected young tobacco planter, was sentenced to six months and fined $625. Dylan responded with a searing ballad recounting the incident, contrasting Carroll’s hardscrabble life with Zantzinger’s privileged world, ending with the verdict, letting his rage build slowly from stanza to stanza. He didn’t mention race. He didn’t need to.

Bob Dylan
getty images
Bob Dylan

The Trayvon Martin versions are all straightforward imitations, replacing the long-suffering Hattie with an idealized Trayvon and the homicidally arrogant Zantzinger with a snarling, racist version of George Zimmerman, Trayvon’s killer. Each rendition borrows its melody and narrative structure from Dylan. All share his chorus: “But you who philosophize, disgrace and criticize all fears / Take the rag away from your face — now ain’t the time for your tears.” All of them retell the story as a morality tale, evil Zimmerman against innocent Trayvon.

In Dylan’s telling, though, the real villain wasn’t the killer, Zantzinger, but the judge who let him off with a rap on the knuckles. The song was a protest against an entrenched caste system that protects some lives and crushes others. Zantzinger’s sheltered life, Carroll’s poverty and pointless death — these “ain’t the time for your tears.” Only at the end, when the judge hands down the outrageous sentence, does the balladeer conclude: “Bury the rag deep in your face — now is the time for your tears.”

To understand why it matters, consider our responses then and now. During the 1960s Americans answered the murders of Hattie Carroll and hundreds more like her not by weeping but by heading South to register voters. They went by the thousands to organize, to teach, to integrate lunch counters, schools and public buses or simply to march arm in arm down the highways of Mississippi and Alabama, sharing their shame and hope with an America that was still capable of shame and hope. William Zantzinger wasn’t the point. The point was to change an unjust system.

Trayvon Martin’s death, too, has brought thousands of protesters to the streets in Florida and around the country. This time, though, they are marching not for freedom or equal rights but for George Zimmerman’s head. As though Zimmerman were some walking embodiment of the system that imperils young men like Martin, not a hapless pawn lured into pathetic delusions of heroism and licensed by idiotic laws to act out his fantasies.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "What I didn’t realize before my trip was that I would leave Uganda with a powerful mandate on my shoulders — almost as if I had personally left Egypt."
  • Is it better to have a young, fresh rabbi, or a rabbi who stays with the same congregation for a long time? What do you think?
  • Why does the leader of Israel's social protest movement now work in a beauty parlor instead of the Knesset?
  • What's it like to be Chagall's granddaughter?
  • Is pot kosher for Passover. The rabbis say no, especially for Ashkenazi Jews. And it doesn't matter if its the unofficial Pot Day of April 20.
  • A Ukrainian rabbi says he thinks the leaflets ordering Jews in restive Donetsk to 'register' were a hoax. But the disturbing story still won't die.
  • Some snacks to help you get through the second half of Passover.
  • You wouldn't think that a Soviet-Jewish immigrant would find much in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the famed novelist once helped one man find his first love. http://jd.fo/f3JiS
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.