Florida's Racist Past Helped Kill Trayvon

The state's black history provides clues to why George Zimmerman confronted the unarmed teen.

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A memorial to Trayvon Martin (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

(The Root) -- A famous quotation, which is often stated and attributed to many, is: "Those who don't know history are destined to repeat it."

When a jury of George Zimmerman's peers acquitted him of second-degree murder in the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla., many advocates in the black community were deeply dismayed. The verdict aroused social commentary on the current state of race relations in the United States; however, few have discussed the historical antecedents of racial hostilities that manifest in the actions of Zimmerman and the mentality of his supporters. Unfortunately, the propagandists who control our education have suppressed and obscured the major historical events that are relevant to black Floridians.

In Florida, Trayvon was exposed to one of the most regressive and racially disparate educational systems in the U.S. He likely did not have teachers who taught him about the state's rich African-American history, but did have required readings that taught him to revere racist historical figures who are largely responsible for present-day racial inequities.

Florida's black history provides important warnings about the depth of state repression against black people, as well as the potential of black people to create sustainable institutions. Knowing that black history is the first step in resolving racial hostilities that permeate education, social interactions and the criminal justice system in Florida specifically, and U.S. society in general.

As a fragile Spanish territory in the early 1800s, Florida became a destination for hundreds of Africans who escaped plantations in Southern states. Under the command of a formally enslaved black man known only by the name of Garcon, a militia of more than 400 black men armed themselves with a cache of weapons left behind by British troops after the War of 1812. After forming cooperative agreements with the Seminoles, fugitive black slaves formed one of the largest and most advanced Maroon colonies in North America. News of the large independent black colony secured by a well-armed "Negro Fort" captured the imaginations of enslaved Africans and ignited angst among plantation owners.

The United States' primary motivation to integrate Florida within the union was to disrupt sovereign living among Africans and American Indians. In its savage conquest of Florida, the U.S. -- under the leadership of Gen. Andrew Jackson -- murdered hundreds of black people in one invasion at the Negro Fort and waged war against their American Indian allies in the region. Jackson ordered the invasion after first sending isolated troops into land controlled by the black settlers. After black settlers killed the troops, Jackson claimed that he was justified in destroying the fort and the colonial settlement, essentially giving an offensive action the appearance of self-defense.

Culminating with a genocidal act known as the "Trail of Tears," the U.S. remade Florida into its youngest slave state. Florida re-enslaved thousands of black people and joined the Confederate States in a divided union. Florida maintained a tradition of racial hostilities after the Civil War. In 1923, the majority-black town of Rosewood was savagely destroyed by racist whites. A depraved mob of white people invaded the predominately black self-sufficient town and lynched a resident. When Rosewood attempted to defend their community, the mob destroyed every structure in the town, causing every resident to permanently evacuate. This massacre happened only two years after many descendants of black Floridians who migrated to Oklahoma experienced a holocaust because of the envious racial aggressions of white people who opposed black advancement. The white people justified the massacres in Rosewood and Oklahoma by claiming they were defending an unsubstantiated accusation of rape.

The journey of Trayvon followed a pattern that is woven into Florida's racist past. Independent actions of black people are often perceived as threatening to white people. When provoked, the expected reaction of black people is to submit, and any defensive action is perceived as a legitimate threat, which becomes the basis of "self-defense" for white people and "justifiable homicide" against black people.

Trayvon was not only a victim of murder; he was also a victim of a 10-day suspension from school, which severely disrupted his education and displaced him from his community. Many argue that Trayvon's drug paraphernalia, not the system, was responsible for the suspensions. However, no 10-day suspension is reasonable. Studies show that white kids use more drugs than black kids but rarely are subject to these lengthy suspensions. The racial differences in the way that schools handle drug experimentation and aggressive behaviors between black and white kids mirrors racial differences in the criminal justice system. 

Trayvon was the victim of Florida school curricula that, according to the U.S. Department of Education, systematically omits classes in high school that are required for college. Orange County Public Schools in Florida (38 percent) and Hillsborough County Public Schools in Florida (57 percent) have the lowest percent of schools that offer Algebra II in high schools with the highest black and Latino enrollment. Hillsborough County Public Schools also has the greatest racial disparity, because it offers Algebra II to 100 percent of students in schools with the lowest percent of black and Latino students. Incidentally, Florida's two flagship universities, University of Florida and Florida State University, require four units of math with one year of math beyond Algebra II.