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.
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.
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
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).