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FROM EMMETT TILL TO TRAYVON MARTIN: The Persistence of White Womanhood and the Preservation of White Manhood

  • Angela Onwuachi-Willig (a1)

Abstract

On February 26, 2012, George Zimmerman, a man of White American and Peruvian descent, shot and killed Trayvon Martin, a Black teenager who was walking back to the home where he was a guest in Sanford, Florida. For many, Trayvon Martin is this generation’s Emmett Till, the fourteen-year-old Black boy who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955 for whistling in a White woman’s presence. In fact, several scholars have highlighted similarities between the Till and Martin tragedies. One unexplored commonality is the manner in which defense counsel in both the Till and Martin trials used the trope of protecting White womanhood to get the jurors to psychologically identify and empathize with the defendants. Employing Multidimensional Masculinities Theory, this essay seeks to expose the role that the protection of White womanhood (and thus the preservation of White manhood) played in the killings of Till and Martin and in each of their killers’ defense strategies at trial. It does so by offering a history of lynching; explaining how White men demonstrated their ownership of White women and their dominance over Blacks by using violence against Black men who threatened the social order; and revealing how the defense attorneys in both the Till and Martin cases manipulated and employed the narrative of the White male protector of White women to facilitate acquittals for their clients. In so doing, it analyzes the transcript from the Till trial, a transcript previously believed to be lost forever until the FBI discovered the transcript upon its re-opening and investigation of the Till murder and released the transcript in 2006. Finally, utilizing excerpts from the trial transcript in the Martin case, this essay reveals how the trope of protecting White womanhood shaped the outcome in the Martin case, even though the stock narrative of needing White female protection from purportedly dangerous Black men was not at all related to the claims about Martin or charges against Zimmerman. In so doing, this essay reveals (1) how White womanhood has been abstracted to encompass not only a specific woman in an incident and to include not only a “man’s” home, but also to include broader spaces like gated communities, and (2) how that reality, coupled with the way that civil rights laws have made it harder for White men to bully Black men and the way that feminism has made it harder to subordinate women, has produced a new masculine anxiety for White men.

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Corresponding author

*Corresponding author: Professor Angela Onwuachi-Willig, Dean and Professor of Law, Boston University School of Law, 765 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, MA 02215. E-mail: aow@bu.edu

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Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race
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