Walking While Black: A Parent’s Survival Rules in Trayvon Martin’s America

Since George Zimmerman’s acquittal on all charges stemming from his fatal confrontation with unarmed Black teenager Trayvon Martin last year, Black American parents are holding their sons particularly tight.

In a “post-racial” America, things were supposed to be fairer considering that its citizens elected a president clearly of African descent. Clearly, that is what five members of the Supreme Court were “thinking” when they voted to basically throw a key provision of the hard-fought Voting Rights Act of 1965 to the wolves of a dysfunctional Congress.

But the post-racial illusion has given way at the return of a slightly kinder, gentler version of attitudes that force African Americans to remember that a number of fellow citizens still harbor ill well towards their well being. Those attitudes compelled civil rights leaders 50 years ago to take bold action in the face of clear and present dangers from those determined to use institutional racism to enforce White supremacy, regardless.

And now these frightened Black parents are forced to have the talk they never wanted to have. No, it’s not about sex. They have to tell their children that being Black in America can be dangerous, even fatal, because some fellow citizens stereotype them as suspicious, criminal, out-of-control, deviant and dumb, that their humanity is not as valuable as that of their White peers. And if someone who believes those stereotypes and, fearing for his or her  life, chooses to use deadly force against them, the larger society likely will not hold him or her accountable.

It feels like the country has gone 50 years backwards, not forwards. And all this comes at a time when Birmingham is commemorating its world-renowned fame as a key battleground the struggle for civil and human rights 50 years ago this year.

So one of its former citizens — lawyer, banker and entrepreneur  Donald V. Watkins — is telling his children and grandchildren what his parents told him years ago: How not to get killed as a Black Man Walking.

donald v. watkins

An Open Letter to My Children and Grandchildren

July 13, 2013, was a sad day in American history. It was the day that America, speaking through a jury verdict in Sanford, Florida, announced to the world that it was okay for a white neighborhood watch volunteer to shoot and kill an unarmed, 17-year black boy who was simply walking home in his dad’s neighborhood while talking on his cell phone to a friend. The slain teenager, Trayvon Martin, was completely innocent of any wrongdoing and was minding his own business. 

Trayvon was followed, confronted and killed because he was black and was wearing a hoodie in a mostly white neighborhood.

On July 13, blacks in America realized that Trayvon Martin was our modern-day Emmitt Till, a 14-year old black boy who was viciously murdered in Mississippi in 1955 after reportedly flirting with a white woman. Not since the Till case has another black child’s violent death caused so much heartache and anguish within black community across America.

When I was a child, my parents and grandparents sat me and my siblings and cousins down in our living room and taught us the basic survival skills needed in the aftermath of Emmitt Till’s murder. Today, it is my turn to do the same for you in the aftermath of Trayvon Martin’s execution.

This is not a “teachable moment”, as President Barack Obama is so fond of saying. We are way past that moment. This is mandatory survival training. Pay close attention, master it, and apply it in your daily life.

Follow these basic survival rules. They are fairly simple and easy to understand:

1. Avoid wearing clothing that evokes negative stereotypes about black people that are commonly held by white people.
2. Never walk any place alone; use the buddy system.
3. Always tell some responsible adult exactly where you are going, what route you plan to take there and back, and when you will be back.
4. Check in when you reach your destination, and when you are headed back home.
5. Pay close attention to your surroundings at all times.
6. Call 911 from your cell phone if you believe you are being followed by a stranger, then go to a well-lit area and wait for police assistance.
7. Call out for help, loudly and repeatedly, if you are in fear of your safety.
8. Never confront anyone who is following you.
9. Never resist anyone who is assaulting you.
10. If possible, avoid all physical contact during a confrontation.
11. Carry identification on you at all times.
12. Use the video recorder on your cell phone to capture any confrontation, if possible.
13. Keep a lookout for surveillance cameras in the immediate area and try to place yourself within plane view of these cameras while walking or waiting for police assistance.
14. Be respectful at all times, even when you are being disrespected by others.
15. Pay particular attention to all of the details involved in any incident, and be prepared to recite them later.
16. Never expect or seek to extract “justice” on the streets. Save this effort for another day when we are able to help you achieve it.
17. Above all, do not hate those who despise you. Love them unconditionally.

Following these survival rules will increase your chances of surviving a Trayvon Martin-type situation. 

This is not a TV series. This is real life as a black child in America. The ultimate goal is to survive. Everything else will be addressed at a later time and using all of the lawful means at our disposal.

I never thought this letter would be needed. Now I know that it is. I love you and want to see each of you to live a long life. I also want you to become productive and proud American citizens. Our country needs you to help it grow and mature as a nation.

 Trayvon Martin's parents visited Birmingham last year.

Trayvon Martin’s parents visited Birmingham last year.

Watkins also wrote another related post on his Facebook page about the incident from the perspective of a lawyer, taking into account the historical patterns that he feels are apparently still at work in America.

The Trayvon Martin Case – A Return to Dred Scott Status

Trayvon Martin is dead. George Zimmerman shot and killed this unarmed 17-year old child who was on his way back from a neighborhood store and heading to his dad’s home. Trayvon’s life ended in the neighborhood where he was staying with his dad. 

Trayvon was not the victim of a mugging, carjacking, drive-by shooting, or random act of gang violence. He was the fatal victim of a neighborhood watch activity carried out by Zimmerman.

Trayvon had no criminal record, nor did he commit a crime on the night of his execution. He was alone and unprotected. 

Trayvon was not peeping into the homes of others in the neighborhood, nor was he casing places to burglarize. He was talking on his cell phone to a friend while walking home. He was not bothering anyone in the neighborhood.

What was his crime? He was black in America and happened to be doing the right things in the wrong place at the wrong time. What was his punishment? A cold-blooded, execution-style, death near his home. Why was he executed? Trayvon, who was wearing a hoodie when Zimmerman spotted him, didn’t look like he belonged in this mostly white, middle-class, Florida neighborhood.

Why did Trayvon resist Zimmerman? Trayvon was an unarmed innocent teenager who was being followed, approached, and confronted by a stranger with a gun. Of course, we never got Trayvon’s version of the events because Zimmerman silenced him, forever.

Let’s be clear – Trayvon was not followed and stopped by a police officer, nor was Zimmerman making a citizen’s arrest for a crime committed in his presence. Trayvon was killed because Zimmerman thought he did not belong in this neighborhood.

What does last night’s jury verdict in Sanford, Florida tell us about the status of blacks in America? 

First, the verdict made it absolutely clear to all Americans (and global citizens) that blacks, for the most part, are alone and unprotected in this country. There is no adequate and functioning system of justice that protects us from this type of unchecked violence, whether we live in Sanford, Florida, where Trayvon was “lawfully” executed during the administration of “neighborhood watch” justice, or we live in Chicago – the gangbanging, murder capital of America. 

Governmental officials at all levels give us with plenty of lip service about fighting crime and providing us with safe neighborhoods, but our reality is far different from these empty campaign slogans and promises. For the first time in our history in America, no one in a position of authority seems to care enough about our lives, safety and welfare to protect us from the George Zimmermans of the world or the murdering thugs and gang members on Chicago’s West and South sides. 

This is not a Democrat or Republican issue. This is a widespread failure of leadership issue. Most of these officials don’t seem to care anymore. They routinely offer the families of the victims “prayers” and attend some of the funerals of victims. Then, life just moves on, and we become less secure, less safe, and less important to most of them.

Just three weeks ago, the U.S. Supreme Court dramatically freed voter discrimination from the effective prison of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. As caricatured in the Star Tribune cartoon reprinted below, many governmental officials, particularly in Southern states, were jubilant over this devastating 5-4 court decision. Those who are prone to discriminate against blacks in America’s voting process were handed a sweeping victory in the furtherance of their cause. 


Forty-eight years of Federal protection for black voters from engrained voter discrimination in Southern states and other covered jurisdictions went out the window with this one decision. We are back where we were before 1965 – alone and unprotected.

The message in all of this – from the unleashing of voter discrimination to Trayvon’s tragic death – is captured in a phrase memorialized in a 1857 U.S. Supreme Court case. In Dred Scott v. Sandford, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, speaking for the Court’s 7-2 majority, wrote that the framers of the Constitution viewed all blacks as:

“beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”

Trayvon Martin’s execution and jury verdict further evidences our sad and painful returned to Dred Scott status. In essence, we have no rights that white people are bound to respect. Even if we have equal rights on paper (much like Dred Scott claimed in 1857 under the “all men are created equal” phrase of the Declaration of Independence), very few officials in positions of authority today have the courage, determination, or political will to enforce them.

Watkins, and all of those who believe our country can and must do better, want to leave this shameful legal legacy in the past, where it belongs.


This lying spirit that provokes such malignant attitudes that have plagued our country for far too long needs to be forced back into its bottle and vacuum-sealed, for the good of all our citizens. African Americans led the way 50 years ago. Unfortunately, it’s time for us to take the lead again as we all move into the next 50 years. 

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