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Trayvon Martin

America's history of racial killings and failed convictions

Was the Trayvon Martin case about race? Much of the media in the US says yes.

IN AN EYE-CATCHING front page, the New York Daily News has aligned the killing of Trayvon Martin to a number of other high-profile, racially charged deaths in American history.

Teamed with an image of a hoody, the words ‘When will it end?” seem to refer to murders of African-Americans by white men.

The newspaper also questions the nation’s ability to convict those responsible for the deaths. Last weekend, the US was shocked by the acquittal of George Zimmerman who shot teenager Trayvon Martin in February last year.

The unarmed, black 17-year-old raised the neighbourhood watch volunteer’s suspicions as he walked through the gated community wearing a hoody. The 29-year-old pursued the youth and shot him during a physical altercation. has taken a look at the cases mentioned by the NY Daily News:

Emmett Till, 1955: Till was just 14 years old when he murdered in Mississippi. His killers, Roy Bryant and JW Milam, described beating him, shooting him in the head and disposing of his body in the Tallahatchie River. It is understood they went to his home and kidnapped him because he whistled at Bryant’s wife during a trip to a local sweet shop.

An undated portrait of Emmett Louis Till. (AP Photo/PA)

Both men were arrested and put on trial, where they protested their innocence.

A jury, made up of 12 white men, was selected as all black people and white women were banned. On 23 September, the pair are found ‘not guilty’ in Till’s death after deliberations of just 67 minutes. According to a PBS documentary, one juror told a reporter that they wouldn’t have taken so long if they hadn’t stopped to “drink pop”.

Roy Bryant and his half-brother, J. W. Milam, second from right, walk down the steps of the Leflore County Courthouse in Greenwood, Mississippi. (AP Photo/PA File)

Willie Edwards, 1957: Willie Edwards, a husband and father, died aged 24 on 22 January 1957.

A 1993 article in the New York Times details how four members of the Ku Klux Klan drove Edwards through the countryside, terrorising him, before stopping at the Tyler Goodwin Bride, pointing a gun and shouting, ‘Hit the water’. The four men joked that he had just gone for a swim. His decomposed body was found three months later. No cause of death was established at this time.

In 1976, the case was reopened by the State’s Attorney General and three men charged with first-degree murder. The fourth man, Raymond Britt, had confessed to his role in the killing and told the AG Bill Baxley what happened that night (in exchange for immunity). According to Britt, the Klansmen had set out to find a truck driver who allegedly made an offensive remark to a white woman…instead, they stumbled across Edwards and Henry Alexander (one of the men who eventually confessed to the crime in the days before his death) insisted they had the ‘right man’.

An Alabama judge, however, quashed the indictment because no cause of death had been established. He said that “merely forcing a person to jump from a bridge does not naturally and probably lead to the death of such person”.

Another attempt to prosecute came in 1997 and a cause of death was determined. Despite the homicide ruling, a Montgomery County Grand Jury declined to indict anybody for the crime.

Members of the Ku Klux Klan in Alabama, 1956

James Chaney, 1964: James Chaney was one of three civil rights worker assassinated on 21 June 1964. He and the other two men – white New Yorkers – had been working to register black voters in Mississippi. The trio had gone to the site of a burning church when they were arrested by police. Hours later, they were released into the hands of the Ku Klux Klan.

The burned station wagon of Michael Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney was found in a swampy area near Philadelphia the following day but it was 44 days before their bodies were discovered.

In 1967, seven men were convicted of conspiracy to deprive the victims of their civil rights. However, nobody was charged with murder.

After years of various investigations (mostly by people outside of the authorities, such as journalists and a group of High School students and their teacher), a case was reopened against Edgar Ray Killen. Known as ‘Preacher’, the former Klansman was convicted on the lesser charge of manslaughter 41 years after the deaths. He was 80 years old when sent to prison for 60 years.

Civil Rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King displays pictures of three civil rights workers at news conference on 4 December 1964.

Michael Donald, 1981: In what is sometimes referred to as the last recorded lynching in the US, Michael Donald was killed by members of the Klan in March 1981.

In an ‘act of revenge’ for the acquittal of a black man accused in court of killing a white policeman, Henry Hays and James Knowles plucked a victim at random in Mobile, Alabama and beat him, strangled him, slit his throat and hung him from a tree.

An initial investigation led to police claiming he was killed over a drugs deal gone wrong, a suggestion vigorously denied by his family and mother Beulah Mae Donald, who went on to contact Jessie Jackson. Following protests, the FBI took the case and Knowles admitted to the murder.

Knowles was convicted and sent to prison, while Hays was sentenced to death. He was executed, aged 42.

Michael Griffith, 1986: The Howard Beach incident of December 1986 was one of a number of infamous racially-motivated killings in New York in the 1980s.

Griffith was 23 years old when he was beaten up and hit by a car on 20 December. He had been riding in another vehicle with three friends when it broke down on Cross Bay Boulevard. As they searched for assistance, three of the men had an argument with a group of teenagers.

When the two groups met again hours later, a physical altercation ensued which involved baseball bats. While trying to escape the gang, Griffith was hit by a car driven by Dominick Blum. Although he stopped briefly, the 24-year-old continued on to his Brooklyn home where his father told him to report the incident. The young man told authorities he thought he had hit an animal or a piece of garbage. He escaped any charges, something that was criticised by lawyers for Cedric Sandiford, one of the survivors.

John Lester, 17, is led from the 106th precinct in Queens, New York, Dec. 23, 1986 after being charged with murder in what the mayor referred to as a “racial lynching”. David Bookstaver/AP/Press Association Images

Three people – Jon Lester, Scott Kern and Jason Ladone – were convicted of manslaughter and second-degree manslaughter in 1987. Ladone served 10 years, Lester 14 years and Kern 15 years.

Yusef Hawkins, 1989:

The Reverand Al Sharpton talks with the media in Chicago, 9 September 1989, while Diane Hawkins listens on. Hawkins’ 16-year-old son Yusuf was shot to death by members of a gang in a Brooklyn, New York. Sharpton urged people to speak out on race-related violence before it happens again. (AP Photo/Jonathan Kirn)

Yusuf Hawkins was shot dead on 23 August 1989 in Brooklyn, New York. He was just 16 years old.

The victim and three of his friends were attacked by a large number of white youths, many of whom had baseball bats. One, armed with a gun, fired twice into Hawkins’ chest.

The teenager had gone to Bensonhurst that night to inquire about a car for sale but had met the gang who were waiting on a black or Hispanic person they believed to be dating a neighbourhood girl.

The man behind the gun was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to 32 years to life in prison. Joseph Fana will be about 50 years old when eligible for parole in 2022.

Keith Mondello was acquitted of murder and manslaughter but convicted of 12 lesser charges. He was imprisoned in 1990 and released in 1998.

A number of other less serious convictions were handed down to other men involved in the crime.

James Byrd Jr, 1998: The 1998 murder of James Byrd Junior shocked America and the world. The African-American died when he was dragged behind a pick-up truck for about three miles on a Texas asphalt road. He was conscious through most of the ordeal and was killed when his body hit the edge of a culvert, severing his right arm and head.

The three men involved in the murder were sentenced to death and life imprisonment. His death also led to the passing of a Texas hate crimes law.

Spray paint marks the spot on 9 June 1998 where officials found the head of James Byrd Jr. , a 49-year-old black man, along Huff Creek Road near Jasper, Texas. (Image: David Phillip/AP/Press Association Images)

Related: ‘Justice for Trayvon’ marches take place across America

More: Protests across US as George Zimmerman acquitted of Trayvon Martin murder

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