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Thinking about the Trayvon Martin Verdict and Black Ambivalence

by Carolyn Cardwell | Oct 03, 2013

(Excerpt from recent lecture)

There is a real cause for concern because of what happened on February 26, 2012 (the Sunday night Trayvon Martin was shot by George Zimmerman) and July 13, 2013 (the night the “not guilty” verdict was given). I believe we'll be talking about Trayvon Martin for years and how his tragic death affected this country, the black community in particular, and became a symbol for a lot of things that are wrong in the African American community.

  • His death was a painful reminder of similar acts of violence done in past years like the death of Emmett Till in 1955 and called into the question how much progress has been made with race relations
  • Trayvon’s death was a reminder of a broken criminal justice system that provided legal sanctuary for George Zimmerman at every juncture of the process while criminalizing and demonizing Trayvon Martin who was the victim in this case.
  • His death and the acquittal of George Zimmerman is a reminder of the vulnerable position many African American boys are in today who have little legal protection from aggressive, gun carrying men who believe they are a menace to society.

This morning I am interested in talking about the ripple effect of these tragic events in the African American community. I have been struck both by the grief and outrage about this case in the black community as well as the apathy, ambivalence, silence, and inactivity by many African Americans since the verdict was given.

There was considerable grief across this nation after Zimmerman was acquitted. I witnessed this grief firsthand in a church in Dayton Ohio. The grief was palpable. People were very upset throughout the early part of the worship service and right up to the time I was supposed to preach. The grief was so dense that I felt I could not preach the sermon until we spent some time in prayer naming our many feelings and confessing the raw emotions and pain we were feeling. Heads nodded. Tears were shed. Then I took up the difficult task of preaching a sermon that brought some semblance of meaning and hope to the people assembled. I also witnessed the grief of my friends and through social media. I’ve had multiple conversations with friends and read countless posts on Facebook by friends, colleagues, and community leaders who were deeply saddened by these events and what they symbolize for blacks. I may be wrong but I have not witnessed grief like this in a long time. 

There was a considerable degree of moral outrage in the black community. For example, some black churches spoke out about this issue in their sermons the weeks after the verdict. Prophetic and justice-minded pastors gave their congregations a history lesson about legalized violence against African Americans that goes back to centuries of slavery and decades of segregation, (a vicious system that we are only four decades removed from). Important community leaders like Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson, Marc Morial, and Marian Wright Edelman and organizations like the NAACP immediately began to petition the United States Attorney General, Eric Holder, to re-open the case on the grounds that Trayvon Martin’s death was a civil rights violation. Petitions went out across the nation. Not only this, but millions of African Americans marched and protested in cities across the country, calling attention to stand your ground laws, racial profiling, and the continuing problem of gun violence. I have been struck by the way this tragedy has galvanized a new level of energy to challenge laws that disproportionately affect African Americans. Many people understand that this tragedy can easily be repeated in states all across this country. And it has been good to see black leaders, especially African American pastors, ministers, and members of congregations talking about laws and issues affecting various segments of the black community.

But sadly, this was not the only response by African American people, organizations, and its churches. The truth is a lot of African Americans and churches were silent the day after the verdict and they continue to be silent and inactive about these issues. For too many black Americans and black churches, it has been business as usual. Instead of encouraging congregants to march or to challenge unjust laws, too many people in churches were singing and praying about getting blessings from God for themselves. Too many pulpits were silent the day after the verdict and the silence continues.

There was and continues to be quite a bit of outrage that so many people are apathetic, silent, and inactive. From social media posts to articles in online journals, there was a groundswell of frustration and resentment over the high number of African Americans who chose, in the face of this tragedy, to close it eyes and do nothing. Surely the apathy, inactivity, and silence are not signs that they do not care about the death of black boys and unjust laws. What’s up with the apathy? Why the silence? Why do many choose to do nothing? What are we to make of this?

This morning we have to begin to understand what I call black ambivalence. There is a lot of ambivalence in our communities. To be ambivalent is to be uncertain and to be conflicted about something, to have mixed feelings. There is ambivalence in that many blacks believed that what happened to Trayvon was tragic and the system failed him but they are uncertain about our complicity in our plight and whether protests and activism will change anything. Not knowing what to do, many chose to do nothing. Though I am saddened by this, I am not surprised by the apathy and the ambivalence that causes our people to remain silent and inactive while our communities continue to suffer. I am, however, startled by this apathy and ambivalence. Our well being and Civil Rights are daily threatened by racist people and racist laws yet we lack the will to do anything about it. I wonder how we expect things to get better or if we even believe they can get better if we sit down and do nothing.   


Lewis Brogdon

          Lewis Brogdon is the
          Director of the Black
          Church Studies
          program at
          Louisville Seminary
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