What does Trayvon Martin have to do with American Religious History?

Matthew J. Cressler

Ever since Trayvon Martin’s murder, and especially after George Zimmerman’s acquittal, I have been haunted by the feeling that something fundamentally shifted, even if everything seemed to remain the same.  The world feels different now, despite the fact that Martin was just one young man among countless black boys, girls, men and women incarcerated or dead in these United States. This struck me as a signal event, one that made me think of that infamous moment when Emmett Till’s battered face graced the covers of newspapers in 1955.  What does Trayvon Martin have to do with American religious history?  Another way of asking this is, what does his death mean for my research and my responsibility as an American religious historian?  

 Shepard Fairey's Trayvon Martin cover for Ebony
Over at Religion and Politics, Marie Griffith writes powerfully about the consolations of faith in the wake of Martin’s murder, but she insists they must not serve as substitutes for concrete action.  She joined Trayvon’s parents and countless religious and nonreligious allies in yearning for an end to racial profiling, gun violence, and self-defense laws.  But it won’t come about magically, or easily,” Griffith concludes.  “It will take determined action, both personal and political, to bring that day to pass.”  Well, what could be more personal and political than our research, than teaching American religious history?

Trayvon Martin’s death calls each of us to act in different ways, in various venues.  This is not something that can be cordoned off – as political, as racial, but not pertinent to American religious history writ large.  It should impact all of us, especially as scholars and teachers.  This means we must remain attentive to the inseparability of religion, race, and violence against African Americans – not to mention against countless other marginalized peoples.  

The concept of race has always been imbued with religious significance and the modern concept of religion was born in complicity with European colonial expansion and its racist underpinnings.  But you don’t need to take my word for it.  Try Sylvester Johnson’s must-read The Myth of Ham for starters (and if you need more, try this, this, this, and this).  To teach religious history is inevitably to teach a history deeply inflected with race. 

This relationship between religion, race, and violence is an ambivalent one, to be sure.  Religions (religious figures, religious communities, religious institutions, religious ideas, et al.) have buttressed racism and justified the murder of black men, women, and children throughout American history.  At the same time, religions have inspired righteous resistance against white supremacy and imperial conquest.  Our BlogMeisters extraordinaire testify to this tension.  Kelly Baker has demonstrated again and again the religious roots of the Ku Klux Klan, which was not as peripheral as we might wish.  Ed Blum and Paul Harvey, meanwhile, illustrated the ways the color of Christ could simultaneously sanctify imperial expansion and genocide and mobilize religious communities in struggles for civil rights and black power.

All of this was on my mind Monday, when I joined the National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus and Sister’s Conference to commemorate their founding, along with deacons, seminarians, and lay people.  As Karen Johnson noted earlier this year, the Black Catholic Clergy Caucus formed in the wake of another black man’s murder – the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.  When Mayor Richard Daley ordered the Chicago police to “shoot to kill” black rioters, black priests were spurred to action with a newfound militancy.  This week they celebrate their 45th anniversary in Chicago.  As the proceedings began, it was impossible for me to ignore the tragic continuities between the past and present of these black Catholic organizations.  Founded forty-five years ago in response to violence in and against black communities, this conference opened soberly with a march against gun violence. They prayed the names of hundreds of victims.  Here, on the lawn of St. Benedict the African Catholic church in Englewood, Trayvon Martin's name was just one among hundreds.  They vowed to honor the names of these black boys and girls, dead far too soon, with action.

In my scramble for some sense of hope, I found myself returning to the words of one black Catholic priest and activist.  George H. Clements was a founding member of the Black Catholic Clergy Caucus.  By 1970 he had been shaken not only by the murder of Martin Luther King, but also of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton – his fellow Chicago activist and friend.  Father Clements insisted “we must continue to dream the impossible dream.  This is the only way really that we can be faithful to the greatest dreamer that ever lived—Jesus Christ.”  His call for all people was to dream those impossible dreams.  Father Clements dreamed of a Catholic Church where hospitals provided free care for the poor, where Martin Luther King was accepted as a saint, a Church committed to bringing about true black self-determination.  He was not naïve about racism and violence.  He acknowledged that these impossible dreamers “become such a source of embarrassment that our society finds it necessary to kill them in the hope of killing their dreams.”  But Clements guarded against despair, concluding that while “a bullet is the answer that is given to many of our dreams…I truly do not believe that anyone can really kill the impossible dreamer.”

If Trayvon Martin and George Clements tell us anything about American religious history, it is that the vital and fatal connections between religion, race, and violence endure.  These black priests and sisters bore witness to decades of ceaseless struggle, struggles that continue.  This history is alive. It is real, it is relevant, and one of my many responsibilities to Martin’s memory is to make this history known – to teach a generation of impossible dreamers.  Trayvon Martin, and the too many who meet similar fates, call us to action.  Their history never ends, it can only be forgotten.


Unknown said…
Yes, the tragedy of Trayvon's murder is dwarfed by the overwhelming divisions that his death has unveiled. For some of us the world feels radically different. Broken. Perhaps beyond repair. Yet nothing has changed in our everyday lives. Will this event change our writing? Our teaching? As you suggest, academic complacency is also a form of social complicity.

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