Those who laid eyes on Emmett’s body would never forget what they saw. It left an especially deep impression on black children Till’s age. For them, it made the horror of white supremacy all too real. They understood that Emmett Till could just as easily have been them.

It also lit a fire under them. Five years later, in 1960, these young people—the Emmett Till Generation—were the same college students who struck a mighty blow for freedom by launching the sit-ins. In an important moment in the larger Civil Rights movement, young African Americans all through the South sat at lunch counters and restaurants in the white seating areas in nonviolent protest of segregation.

Meanwhile, back in Mississippi, Bryant and Milam stood trial for their crime. But an all-white, all-male jury took little over an hour to find them “not guilty.”

A month later, the two men sold their story to Look magazine for $4,000. In the article, they confessed to murdering Emmett Till, and their justification serves as a sobering testament to white racial views in the mid-twentieth century.

“Well, what else could we do? He was hopeless… I like [African Americans]—in their place—I know how to work 'em. But I just decided it was time a few people got put on notice. As long as I live and can do anything about it, [they] are gonna stay in their place. [They] ain't gonna vote where I live. If they did, they'd control the government. They ain't gonna go to school with my kids. And when [an African American] gets close to mentioning sex with a white woman, he's tired o' livin'. I'm likely to kill him… I stood there in that shed and listened … and I just made up my mind. 'Chicago boy,' I said, 'I'm tired of 'em sending your kind down here to stir up trouble. Goddam you, I'm going to make an example of you—just so everybody can know how me and my folks stand.”

Guilty Until Proven Innocent

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s dismantled some of the more egregious laws that sanctioned racial violence, discrimination, and segregation, especially with the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), as well as the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965).

Yet, many attitudes and customs remain unchanged.

The assumption of black criminality is a common thread connecting Till’s death and the acquittal of his murderers with so many other unprosecuted and unpunished killings of African Americans by whites both yesterday and today.

Far too often whites assume that African Americans, especially African American men and boys, are criminals or criminals in training. This kind of racial profiling is wholly divorced from the historical reality of racial violence and lynching, which suggests that African Americans have a whole lot to fear from whites and that whites have far less to fear from African Americans.

But, it was this sort of racial profiling that compelled Zimmerman to initially move on 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.

Every American is exposed to the idea of black criminality. The fact that George Zimmerman was of Hispanic descent, therefore, did not immunize him from these beliefs. He was just as susceptible to them as the average white American.

This sad reality helps explain why so many in the white community embraced Zimmerman as one of their own. They accepted him and his version of events because they shared fully his perspective on black criminality.

When Zimmerman first spotted Martin at the Retreat at Twin Lakes, the townhouse complex where Zimmerman lived, he assumed the lanky young man was up to no good, a thief on the prowl most likely. Zimmerman said as much to the 911 operator he called to report Martin’s presence. “F------ punks,” he said. “These a------ … They always get away.”

It is telling that Zimmerman assumed that Martin was casing the neighborhood, looking for someplace or someone to rob. There are an infinite number of possibilities that might just as easily have explained the youth’s presence, possibilities that Zimmerman most assuredly would have applied to someone other than a young black male.

One possibility was that Martin was simply walking back to where he was staying after taking a trip to the neighborhood convenience store to purchase something as innocuous as a bag of Skittles and a bottle of Arizona iced tea. And while this possibility happens to be true, neither it nor any other legitimate cause for Martin’s presence seems to have crossed Zimmerman’s mind.

Instead, Zimmerman immediately suspected Martin of criminal activity. In doing so, he racially profiled Martin, drawing on the old stereotype that casts black males as perpetual lawbreakers.

What happened next remains in dispute. It is tragically clear, though, that after making contact, Zimmerman shot and killed the unarmed Martin. Zimmerman did not deny this fact; he said as much to the police.

It is equally clear that police officers in this predominantly white suburb of Orlando accepted Zimmerman’s version of things. Without a meaningful investigation, they dismissed the killing as self-defense.

Later, when pressed for an explanation as to why Zimmerman had not been charged with a crime for killing the unarmed black youth, police officials insisted that Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, which permits a person to use deadly force if that person fears death or bodily harm, prohibited them from bringing charges.

Stand Your Ground

Stand Your Ground laws have been introduced nationwide by the ultra-conservative policy group the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and have taken hold in the South as well as in Northeastern and Midwestern swing states. These laws have made it twice as likely that a murder will be ruled a justifiable homicide.

This shift in excusing murder is all the more troubling when one considers the tremendous racial disparity in which homicides are ruled justifiable.

According to research conducted by John Roman, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center, even in states without Stand Your Ground laws, 29.3 percent of white-on-black shootings are ruled justifiable, while only 2.9 percent of black-on-white shootings are.

Although law and custom were against them, Martin’s parents were determined to bring their son’s killer before a court of law. So when it became clear that local prosecutors did not plan on charging Zimmerman, they reached out to civil rights activists. Together, they raised national awareness of the case.

As news of the killing spread, African Americans began to mobilize. Thousands descended on Sanford to participate in Justice for Trayvon rallies. An online petition started by Martin’s parents demanding that Zimmerman be prosecuted collected more than two million signatures.

The fervent response of the black community demanding that Zimmerman be brought to justice stemmed from collective memory of the tragically long history of white Americans killing African Americans and never having to stand trial for their crimes. Also on the minds of African Americans was the painful realization that black men and boys could still be killed for doing nothing other than minding their own business.

African Americans reacted so viscerally to Martin’s death and the failure of police and prosecutors to do anything about it because they understood that Martin’s fate could just as easily be their own, or that of a brother, son, father, uncle, nephew, or friend.

When African Americans looked in the mirror or laid eyes on loved ones, Trayvon Martin stared back. Speaking about a week after the trial and in unusually frank and personal terms about racism and American history, President Barack Obama remarked: "Trayvon Martin could have been me, 35 years ago.”

As the grassroots mobilization grew, so too did the rallying cry, “I am Trayvon Martin.”

Race and the Court Room

Forty-four days after the shooting, police finally arrested Zimmerman. Responding to the public outcry, the office of the state’s attorney general investigated the incident and found just cause to charge Zimmerman with second-degree murder, meaning the state believed he acted with a depraved state of mind, ill will, hatred, or spite.

One year later, when Zimmerman’s trial began, African Americans followed it intently. The prosecution’s approach, however, left many bewildered. Although racial profiling sparked the chain of events that led Zimmerman to kill Martin, prosecutors insisted that race had nothing to do with it.

State Attorney Angela Corey would later say, “This case has never been about race … We believe this case all along was about boundaries, and George Zimmerman exceeded those boundaries.”

Indeed, the prosecution ran from race. They refused to address how racial prejudice, which remains pervasive in American society, framed Zimmerman’s thoughts and behavior. In fact, they pretended as though race and racism did not exist.

Theirs was a colorblind prosecution that proved terribly misguided.

At the same time, prosecutors did next to nothing to disabuse jurors of their preconceived notions of young black men as dangerous. They failed to humanize Martin, to call to the stand people other than his most immediate family and friends to show that he was no different than the young people in the jurors’ own lives.

African Americans know this intuitively, but this remains a stretch for other Americans whose primary image of black males is what they see during the crime segment on the local news.

Unlike the prosecution, Zimmerman’s attorneys did not shy away from race. They played to prevailing racial stereotypes of black men as criminals to explain away Zimmerman’s mistaken assumption that Martin was a burglar.

Once black criminality was established, not a difficult task given prevailing assumptions about blacks and crime, Zimmerman’s profiling of Martin seemed logical. It became something the jurors themselves might have done in the same situation.

The defense attorneys did not stop there. They continued to play to racial prejudice by portraying Martin as dangerous. It did not matter that Martin was unarmed or that he did not initiate the encounter. As a black male, he was a threat. Martin’s race lent credibility to Zimmerman’s claim that the young man was going to kill him. Indeed, it was the pivot around which Zimmerman’s self-defense claim turned.

In the end, race trumped reality.

It is clear from post-trial interviews with jurors that they never connected with Martin on a personal level. He remained to them a menacing racial other. Instead, they identified with Zimmerman. They related to his story of being afraid of a young black male and accepted his actions based on this manufactured fear.

“We Who Believe in Freedom Cannot Rest”

The weight of painful history continues to fuel the desire of many African Americans to keep fighting for justice for Trayvon and to end the kind of racial prejudice that led to his death and Zimmerman’s acquittal.

“We stand with Trayvon’s family and we are called to act,” declared Benjamin Todd Jealous, the president of the NAACP, the nation’s leading civil rights organization. “We will pursue civil rights charges with the Department of Justice, we will continue to fight for the removal of Stand Your Ground laws in every state, and we will not rest until racial profiling in all its forms is outlawed.”

More than 1.5 million people have signed the NAACP’s petition to the Justice Department asking that federal charges, including civil rights charges, be filed against George Zimmerman.

In the Age of Obama, there has been a great deal of debate about America being a post-racial society. The killing of Trayvon Martin and the failure of the legal system to provide a modicum of justice ought to put this debate to rest.

America is not a post-racial society; far from it. Indeed, white Americans, including the most well-meaning white Americans, need to stop pretending to be colorblind. They need to acknowledge the ways that race, personal prejudice, and institutionalized racism impact and inform our daily lives.

During the civil rights era, the singing group Sweet Honey in the Rock lamented that the killing of black men—black mothers’ sons—is not as important as the killing of white men—white mothers’ sons.

Some fifty years later, this sad fact of American life remains true. It is also true, as the singers declared, that until such time as this is no longer the case, “we who believe in freedom cannot rest.”