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If we had a real civil rights movement today, it would not have rallied in Sanford, where Zimmerman was patrolling the streets, lethally waving his gun at his neighbors. It would have descended on Tallahassee, the Florida state capital, to denounce the legislature that enacted the ludicrous Stand Your Ground Law and made Zimmerman’s actions legal. It would have rallied in Georgia, Indiana, Oklahoma and the two dozen other states that have enacted Stand Your Ground laws. It would have protested that these witless statutes are turning our streets into legal shooting galleries and putting our families in danger. Trayvon’s death is only the tip of a statistical iceberg.
Bob Dylan wrote another song a few weeks before “Hattie Carroll” that describes our current tragedy with far greater precision. The title: “Only a Pawn in Their Game.” He wrote it in response to the murder in June 1963 of Medgar Evers, Mississippi state NAACP director. But Evers is mentioned only briefly. He wasn’t the point. As for the killer, he wouldn’t be identified until months later, but he wasn’t the point, either. The point, as Dylan sang on August 28 at the historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, moments before Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, was this:
“A South politician preaches to the poor white man: / ‘You got more than the blacks, don’t complain. / You’re better than them, you been born with white skin,’ they explain. / And the Negro’s name is used, it is plain, / for the politician’s gain as he rises to fame / while the poor white remains on the caboose of the train. / But it ain’t him to blame. / He’s only a pawn in their game.”
A real civil rights movement would have been rallying and protesting ceaselessly for the last decade in Washington and on Wall Street to demand tax and industrial policies that force companies to create jobs at decent pay. It would have insisted that American teenagers be shown a future with a reasonable chance of security in exchange for honest work, regardless of skin color, background or native ability. It would be fighting for an economy that allows even the least of us to live with dignity, rather than forcing young people to choose between picking at the margins or roaming the streets and frightening their neighbors.
America in the past quarter-century has experienced a massive, multitrillion-dollar transfer of wealth from the bottom and middle to the very top. It’s become such a cliché that we forget its statistical truth: A handful have become fabulously wealthy — wealthier than any class of plutocrats in human history — while everyone else has stood still or fallen behind. And it’s only been possible because the rest of us have been kept at each others’ throats, fighting each other to the death like so many George Zimmermans and Trayvon Martins, without shame or hope, only pawns in their game.
Contact J.J. Goldberg at firstname.lastname@example.org