Trayvon Martin case: Will it be 'forgotten,' as Colin Powell says?

Trayvon Martin was a rallying point for a new surge in African-American activism. But former Secretary of State Colin Powell suggests the case won't likely have a lasting impact.

Mary F. Calvert/CBS/AP
Former Secretary of State Colin Powell speaks on CBS's 'Face the Nation' Sunday. He discussed the Trayvon Martin case.

Speaking on CBS's "Face the Nation" Sunday morning, former Secretary of State Colin Powell – the first black man to hold that position – was asked to give his opinions about the Trayvon Martin case.

He began by calling the judgment "questionable." Neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman was acquitted of manslaughter and murder charges in his killing of Trayvon, who was 17, unarmed, and black.

But just as interesting as his doubts about the justice of the verdict are his doubts about the historical importance of the case. While the trial stirred deep questions about race in America, Mr. Powell seemed to dismiss the idea that it would leave any lasting imprint.

"I don't know if it will have staying power," he said. "These cases come along, and they blaze across the midnight sky and then after a period of time, they're forgotten."

It raises the question: What might the enduring impact of the Zimmerman trial be – if any?

Certainly, State of Florida v. George Zimmerman is no Brown v. Board of Education, the United States Supreme Court ruling in 1954 that found "separate but equal" treatment of blacks unconstitutional and laid the groundwork for the end of Jim Crow and the rise of the Civil Rights Era. By most legal and cultural measures, the impact of the Zimmerman case on America has been negligible.

Yet the Zimmerman trial convulsed the nation, and, in the end, compelled the president – the nation's first black president – to speak at length about the racial aspects of the case through his own lens.

In an article in Time magazine, Powell said the Rev. Martin Luther King's March on Washington – commemorated Saturday in 50th-anniversary celebrations – held up a mirror for America to examine itself on the issue of race. In its own way, the Zimmerman trial did the same thing.

Speaking on "Face the Nation," Powell offered this racial "report card" since 1963: "Enormous progress has been made. African-Americans and other minorities have moved to the top of every institution in American society." But he added: "There are still problems in this country.... There is still racial bias that exists in certain parts of our country."

As was apparent during President Obama's 2009 "beer summit," which attempted to reconcile a white Cambridge, Mass., cop with a black Harvard professor, racial lines still exist in American society, but they are becoming more blurred. Racism is no longer as obvious as water cannons and seats at the back of the bus. Many times, it is still there, only subtler. Many times, it is perceived where none exists.

The phantom of a racist past is dispersing, but slowly, Powell seems to be saying.

The Zimmerman trial bore witness to that process. The judge specifically barred a discussion of race from the courtroom, and jurors have said race had nothing to do with the verdict. Yet other legal experts have chided the prosecution for not insisting on bringing race to the table, saying it was the foundation of the case. Zimmerman tracked Trayvon through a gated community, they say, because Zimmerman assumed Trayvon was a criminal because he was black.

Was the case about race? Was it not? The very fact that the question was asked – but was seemingly impossible to answer conclusively – speaks poignantly of the state of racial affairs in the country today.

Powell imagined Sunday what Dr. King's message to America today might be. He would say, " 'Congratulations on all progress that's been made, but let's keep going,' " Powell said. "If Dr. King were here, he would be jabbing us" to keep moving forward.

In some ways, the Zimmerman trial stands as a marker of this progress on race. In 1992, there was little question that the beating of Los Angeles motorist Rodney King had racial overtones. The verdict in that case plunged Los Angeles into debilitating racial riots. But attempts at race-baiting in the Zimmerman trial were faced down. While Americans might honestly differ on whether they believe race played a factor, race was not allowed to become a vehicle for further hate and lawlessness.

King would surely have been glad of that.

Yet the case, in Powell's words about King, also "jabbed us." It became the vessel for Americans of good conscience to examine their own and see if the subtler forms of racism – the sort that Mr. Obama said causes some whites to lock their doors when a black man passes – have been exposed and rooted out. It challenged a nation to move beyond a formal and legal denial of racism and instead take the case to their own hearts.

"We should not overlook how far we've come since 1963. I have seen things that I couldn't have imagined. That is a remarkable improvement," Powell said. "But we're not there yet."

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