After deliberating for sixteen hours, the jurors in State of Florida v. George Zimmerman informed Seminole Circuit Court Judge Debra Nelson that they had reached a verdict.

Zimmerman, a 29-year-old neighborhood watch captain in Sanford, Florida, had been charged with second-degree murder for killing African American teenager Trayvon Martin on February 26, 2012.

Martin’s parents, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, had sat through every moment of the three-week trial, but they were not present the evening of July 13, 2013 to hear the verdict. They had left Tallahassee hours earlier. Waiting for the verdict had become unbearable.

On the charge of second-degree murder, the six-woman panel found Zimmerman not guilty. The jury of five whites and one Latina reached the same conclusion on the lesser charge of manslaughter.

Less than an hour after the verdict was announced, Martin’s parents let their voices be heard. Using social media, they expressed their disappointment in the trial’s outcome, pain over the loss of their child, appreciation for the millions who mobilized to support justice for their son, deep and abiding Christian faith, and everlasting love for their dead son.

“Lord during my darkest hour I lean on you,” tweeted Sybrina Fulton. “You are all that I have. At the end of the day, GOD is still in control. Thank you all for your prayers and support. I will love you forever Trayvon!!! In the name of Jesus!!!”

Tracy Martin tweeted, “Even though I am broken hearted my faith is unshattered, I WILL ALWAYS LOVE MY BABY TRAY.” He added: “God blessed Me and Sybrina with Tray and even in his death I know my baby proud of the FIGHT we along with all of you put up for him GOD BLESS (sic).”

As word of the not-guilty verdict spread, spontaneous protests erupted in cities across the country. From Miami, Florida to Oakland, California, thousands took to the streets to vent their anger and frustration. In Washington, D.C., some carried signs that read, “Stop criminalizing black men,” while in New York City others held banners that read, “We are all Trayvon Martin.” Rioting was predicted, but nothing of consequence occurred.

Like the Martins, many people shared their grief and outrage through social media. “How do I explain this to my young boys??” tweeted NBA superstar Dwyane Wade.

Others used social media to express their dissatisfaction with the spate of gun laws that have made it increasingly difficult to prosecute people who claim self-defense to justify their use of deadly force. “Only God knows what was on Zimmerman’s mind,” tweeted media mogul Russell Simmons, “but the gun laws and stand your ground laws must change.”

Still others drew attention to the long history of racial violence against African Americans, and to the even longer history of perpetrators of such crimes going unpunished.

Benjamin Crump, the attorney for the Martin family, echoed the sentiments of many on social media when he paralleled Zimmerman’s acquittal to that of the white men who murdered 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955. “You have a little black boy who was killed,” he said during a press conference immediately after the verdict was read. “It’s going to be reported in history books and 50 years from now, our children will talk about Trayvon Martin’s case like we talk about Emmett Till.”

The hurt and anger emanating from every corner of the black community was palpable. And while many white Americans shared this sense of injustice, there remained a great gulf separating how African Americans and white Americans made sense of Martin’s death and Zimmerman’s acquittal.

Before the trial and Zimmerman’s arrest, a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll found that 73% of African Americans believed that, if Martin had been white, Zimmerman would have been immediately arrested. Only 33% of whites shared this view.

After the trial, the chasm in perspective remained. According to a Pew Research Center poll, 86 percent of African Americans were dissatisfied with the verdict, as compared to just 30 percent of whites.

The Pew report notes that “nearly eight-in-ten blacks (78%) say the case raises important issues about race that need to be discussed.” Just 28% of whites say the same, “while twice as many (60%) say the issue of race is getting more attention than it deserves.” Other polls found similar if not more polarized results.

The reason for the gap is no mystery. African Americans placed the shooting and trial in historical perspective. They located it on the continuum of anti-black violence, assumed black criminality, and racial bias in the criminal justice system that stretches back generations.

Knowing this history, Ice Cube, who has rapped about the senseless killing of African American men and boys, tweeted: “The Trayvon Martin verdict doesn’t surprise me. Sanford, Florida never wanted Zimmerman arrested. Now he’s free to kill another child.”

White Americans, meanwhile, tended to ignore the racially discriminatory aspects of the black experience, past and present. Instead, they viewed Zimmerman’s actions in isolation, divorcing them from the social and historical reality that informed them. They also fell back on racial stereotypes to explain Zimmerman’s and Martin’s behavior.

There are facts about the night that George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin that will never be known for certain because Martin is not here to tell his side of the story.

But it is possible to know why African Americans and white Americans viewed the situation so differently. The key is the historical context that informed African Americans’ understanding of Martin’s murder and Zimmerman’s acquittal.

Racial Violence and the Color of Justice

African Americans made tremendous gains politically and socially immediately after slavery ended in 1865. Drawing on their newly won citizenship rights, they ushered in an era of expanded democracy that saw, in addition to the election of African Americans to state and federal offices, African Americans serving on juries. In the process, they began to transform the South.

But African American advances were short lived. Southern whites clung feverishly to a slaveholder mentality and wanted desperately to reestablish control over black labor.

And so, when southern whites returned to power in the 1870s, they began enacting laws that stripped African Americans of their most basic freedom rights, including equal justice under the law.

The federal government sanctioned the process of turning back the clock. After Homer Plessy challenged segregation on public transportation by deliberately sitting in a whites-only car on a Louisiana railroad, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of segregation.

In Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) the court ruled that in all facets of public life African Americans and whites could legally be kept separate as long as equal accommodations were provided. The court ignored the fact that separate always turned out to be unequal.

In the wake of Plessy, white southerners rapidly created the extensive Jim Crow system of laws and customs that locked in and enforced southern racial segregation. And whites used violence and terror to ensure that African Americans adhered to the new status quo.

Indeed, violence was the cornerstone of Jim Crow, much as it had been during slavery. It was used to control black labor and regulate black behavior. It took many forms, from beatings and sexual assaults to wanton murder.

The most dramatic form of violence, though, was lynching. Many of these murders were public spectacles, drawing huge crowds. They also frequently involved local lawmen and civic leaders.

Between 1882 and 1930, whites lynched some 2,300 African Americans in ten Southern states from North Carolina to Louisiana. Mississippi led the nation in lynching with over 500, but Florida had more than its fair share. In the history of American race relations, Florida has been no different than the rest of the South.

In Lafayette County, Florida in 1895, three black men were kidnapped by a group of white men. The three were blamed for the death of a white woman, an accusation they vehemently denied. Despite their pleas of innocence, an eyewitness reported: “They were scalped, their eyelids and their noses cut off, the flesh cut from their jaws, their bodies scraped and their privates cut out. The blood flowed in streams from their ghastly wounds, and their screams rent the air only to be silenced by the tearing out of their tongues by the roots.” It perhaps goes without saying that the white perpetrators were not punished for this horror.

Almost anything could trigger an act of racial violence. Violating Jim Crow protocol by failing to say ‘yes sir’ or ‘no sir’ when addressing a white man could lead to a beating, while turning a profit as a farmer could result in murder.

“Abusive language” was a formal, legal charge that landed plenty of African Americans in jail. The informal penalty for “Talking back,” though, could be even higher. In 1890, F. G. Humphreys, the collector of customs at Pensacola, described the consequences of “Talking back” in a letter to U.S. Senator William Chandler.

“Not a great while ago at the River Junction, 22 miles this side of Quincy, a young man by the name of Allison, a native of Quincy, employed by a railroad at the junction, had some words with an employee of the same road, when another clerk said … ‘Here, take my pistol & kill the black son of a bitch,’ this he did, deliberately walking up to the colored man and blowing his brains out! For this crime Allison was never arrested. I am told this by a Democrat, an eye witness to the affair. Such dastardly outrages are of daily occurrence in the South of which you hear nothing, and we are powerless to prevent it.”

The arbitrariness of Jim Crow made every African American susceptible to violence, making it difficult for them to live free of fear.

Racial terrorism was not the preserve of a single group or class of whites. All manner of whites—rich and poor, old and young, men and women, professional and working class—engaged in acts of racial terror.

And rarely did they hide behind hoods. They committed their acts of violence in the open, knowing that sheriffs would not arrest them, prosecutors would not try them, and all-white juries would not convict them.

During the Jim Crow era, the scales of justice were tipped wholly in their favor.

The Tragedy of Emmett Till

Of the many murders of African Americans by whites, young Emmett Till’s death continues to reverberate in the black community. It is hardly surprising, then, that his name leapt from the lips of African Americans nationwide when they learned of the killing of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of George Zimmerman.

14-year-old Emmett Till lived in Chicago with his mother, Mamie Till, but home for them was Mississippi, where Mamie was born and grew up. In August 1955, Mamie Till sent young Emmett to Money, Mississippi to be with family and friends while school was out, a common custom among black migrants from the South.

Till had only been in the sleepy town a few days when he and several buddies visited a convenience store to purchase candy and cold drinks. But as he left the store, something happened.

On a dare, he might have whistled or said “Bye baby” to the white woman behind the register, Carolyn Bryant, whose husband owned the store. Whatever transpired, Bryant felt insulted and assaulted. Having not grown up in the South, Till did not realize the dangerous line that had been crossed.

A few nights later, Carolyn’s husband, Roy Bryant, and his half-brother, J.W. Milam, kidnapped Till from his uncle’s home in plain view of everyone in the house. It was the last time anyone saw him alive.

After several days, Till’s severely beaten and mutilated body was found in the Tallahatchie River, having floated to the surface after the cotton gin fan that had been used to weigh it down came loose.

When Mamie Till laid eyes on her son’s swollen and mutilated body, she set aside her own grief and despair and resolved to have an open casket funeral. She wanted the whole world to see what Mississippi had done to her only child. Thousands viewed young Emmett’s body at his funeral in Chicago, and many thousands more saw it when snapshots appeared in Jet Magazine, a popular African American weekly.

Emmett Till’s murder shocked the nation in part because it took place in a new media era when images could be easily spread and it was much harder than in earlier generations to hide the results of lynching and murders.