August 28, 1963 was a landmark day in the civil rights movement. Fifty years ago last month, King delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech and the nation’s capital echoed with protest songs, marches, hope and prayer.
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On that same day, just 70 miles away in Hagerstown, Maryland, a young white plantation owner named William Zantzinger was sentenced to a mere six months in jail for the murder of a middle-aged black waitress, Hattie Carroll. This travesty of justice entered our cultural memory through Bob Dylan’s balladic recount in “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.” The case recently resurfaced in the wake of the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the murder of Trayvon Martin: a murder also shaped by the victim’s race and the killer’s racism, and a disappointingly similar outcome framed by systemic racial prejudice and outrageous legal technicalities.
The parallels between the Zantzinger and Zimmerman cases have given me plenty to think about, since Zantzinger and I are related. I know, on a very personal level, that tragedies like these don’t come out of nowhere. They come from a long history, from a vast, complex system of family and cultural attitudes and interactions. And they certainly don’t end with the guilty or not-guilty decree: they tragically shape individuals, families, cultures and communities on all sides. For generations.
WITH RICH WEALTHY PARENTS WHO PROVIDE AND PROTECT HIM
As my mother recounted to me a few weeks ago, she and William Zantzinger were second cousins; their grandfathers were brothers. Mom was born in 1932 in California, a coast away from the eastern branch of the Green family whose ancestors owned a vast tobacco plantation in 18th century Maryland, and whose 20th century racial attitudes hadn’t changed measurably from the antebellum ideologies I studied while writing my dissertation.
My parents moved to D.C. in 1961, and my parents found themselves at a family holiday party in 1962. They met Zantzinger at that party, just that once, barely five weeks before he killed Carroll. “He seemed very wholesome,” my mother told me, “very outgoing, very friendly to us. He was telling us about how they grew tobacco; he was really into it and really wanted us to come and see him.”
But even then she was uncomfortable with her relatives’ racism, writing to her mother, “About 10 p.m., everyone cleared out except the immediate family so there was room to sit down and visit then. They got on the subject of their Negro servants, and… I didn’t like their attitude much!”
WITH A CANE THAT HE TWIRLED AROUND HIS DIAMOND RING FINGER
February 9, 1963. Five weeks after my parents were charmed by this distant cousin, many lives unraveled. Zantzinger, who at 24 owned a 650-acre tobacco farm, attended Baltimore’s annual charity Spinster’s Ball with his socialite wife Jane. Dressed in a top hat and tails for the white-tie event, he brandished a toy cane he’d apparently acquired from a fair.
Already drunk when he arrived at the ball, Zantzinger, according to TIME’s account, “stung a Negro bellhop’s rear with his cane,” then swore and swung at another black waitress. After a few more drinks, he demanded another from Hattie Carroll, who was behind the bar. A 51-year-old single mother of 11, a woman who sang in her church choir, Carroll didn’t move fast enough to get him that drink. “I’m hurrying as fast as I can,” she told him.
“I don’t have to take that kind of shit off a nigger,” Zantzinger swore. Pulling out his toy cane, he struck Carroll. She collapsed, saying, “I feel deathly ill, that man has upset me so.” She was taken to the hospital and died of a cerebral hemorrhage eight hours later. Zantzinger (who also struck his wife to the floor soon after he hit Carroll) was charged with homicide.
BUT YOU WHO PHILOSOPHIZE DISGRACE AND CRITICIZE ALL FEARS
Not far away, in a D.C. suburb, my mother picked up the Washington Post the next day and saw her cousin’s photo. “The story was on the front page,” she told me. “My reaction was, ‘see, this is where your racial attitudes have brought you, you people!’”
What did she do? “We just dropped them,” she told me. “I couldn’t deal with that incident. I didn’t know what to say. I really liked them but I couldn’t stand their racial attitudes, which came up every time we got together.”
It seems that the feelings were mutual, since the family only invited my parents to one subsequent event. “I think they realized we weren’t sympathetic to Zantzinger and realized we couldn’t be part of the inner circle of the family.”
TAKE THE RAG AWAY FROM YOUR FACE / NOW AIN’T THE TIME FOR YOUR TEARS.
August 28, 1963. As King lit up the Washington Mall with dreams of a world beyond injustice, a three-judge panel in Hagerstown, MD handed down Zantzinger’s sentence: six months in jail, the charge reduced to manslaughter because Carroll had pre-existing health conditions. The sentence itself was deferred until mid-September, “to allow Zantzinger to finish gathering his tobacco crop.” He was fined $500 for killing Carroll, and $125 for abusing the other employees.
Bob Dylan — then 22, just two years younger than Zantzinger — read the news on the train ride back from singing at the King event that same day. He wrote Carroll and Zantzinger into history, recording it that October and releasing it on The Times They Are A-Changin’. Zantzinger’s unfathomably light punishment is the final straw in Dylan’s account; the ballad ends with the verdict and a call to tears: “You who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears / Bury the rag deep in your face / For now’s the time for your tears.”Review of the lyrics and the facts of the case from Mother Jones.
REACTED TO HIS DEED WITH A SHRUG OF HIS SHOULDERS
After serving his six months, Zantzinger returned to his farm; he later sold it and moved into real estate. His name resurfaced in the early 90s when he was arrested for fraud and “deceptive business practices.” He owned some decrepit rental houses (no running water, no toilets or even outhouses) that had been repossessed by Charles County. Counting on his tenants’ ignorance of said repossession, he kept charging rent for several years. He even filed complaints in county court against tenants who’d fallen behind on fictitious rent — and won. When he was finally arrested and charged, he was sentenced to 18 months of work release, and fined $62,000. He died in 2009, and his many obituaries read like tributes to an unrepentant Scrooge.
AND THAT LADDER OF LAW HAS NO TOP AND NO BOTTOM
And his family — my extended family? Did Zantzinger’s crime exorcise them of what my grandmother called “that old vicious white-superiority disease”?
I have only one bit of evidence to answer that question. I was born in D.C. in 1965, post-Zantzinger; my family moved west again when I was two, and I only met any part of the eastern family once. In 1990 I spent a depressing year in D.C. with my then-boyfriend who was half-Latino. When my mom visited, the three of us made the trek to Bethesda to visit two elderly aunts from the Maryland clan.
We were shown a fine selection of ancestral relics: a set of 18th century china saved from the family plantation, a fan given by Lafayette to one ancestor, miniatures of others painted by Peale. After a 60s-style luncheon, the aunts lapsed into decades-old grooves, decrying “the negroes and Mexicans taking over the city [D.C.].”
I sat there, dumb and dumbfounded, a Southwestern girl who’d never encountered such talk. My boyfriend, despite his Spanish surname, apparently passed for white in their elderly eyes. He mentioned an interest in law school and they pounced: “Oh, you must go to law school. But don’t go to American — it’s so… dark. You must go to Georgetown!” We left soon afterwards, politely excusing ourselves before bursting into what we wished we’d said if we weren’t rendered mute by a ridiculous sense of social niceties.
Lessons not really learned on any side — these ancient aunts were as racist, as bitter, as oblivious as they’d likely been in the 60s. We didn’t fare much better, despite what we saw as our liberal racial attitudes. Not that we would have changed these women’s minds one bit — but we all lacked the gumption to even try.
AND HE SPOKE THROUGH HIS CLOAK, MOST DEEP AND DISTINGUISHED
2013. A young, defenseless teenager goes out for Skittles, never comes home, and the man who shot him is free and reportedly touring gun factories and pulling guns on his soon-to-be ex-wife. Not long after, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of King’s epic speech, still sifting through emotional rubble of the Zimmerman acquittal.
Today, reflecting on King’s speech, I’m haunted by the twin ghosts of Hattie Carroll and Travyon Martin; by things I couldn’t possibly change in my family history; and by things I might have changed, even just a little, if I’d had the nerve. Yet if these tragedies don’t haunt us, causing us to reflect and doubt and reassess and fix what’s wrong, they miss the chance to help prevent future pain, to someday help us save ourselves from ourselves.
We want things to be better these days. We Americans insist on progress — at least on the surface.
And there is a difference between the deaths of Hattie Carroll and Trayvon Martin — but not the difference we might hope for. Hattie Carroll’s death occurred in the change-hungry 60s, with civil rights in the forefront. Citizens, leaders and artists acted on injustice, and Dylan turned Carroll’s death into an anthem. Travyon Martin was killed in an era when, despite a black president, despite many other changes decades hence, a self-made neighborhood watchman made a quick equation of black male + hoodie = criminal. We’re angry and sad, to be sure — but we’re not organized or politicized around the issue as people were in the 60s.
J. J. Goldberg put the distinction between the two eras eloquently, in a 2012 article in Forward:
During the 1960s Americans answered the murders of Hattie Carroll and hundreds more like her not by weeping but by heading South to register voters. They went by the thousands to organize, to teach, to integrate lunch counters… sharing their shame and hope with an America that was still capable of shame and hope. William Zantzinger wasn’t the point. The point was to change an unjust system. Trayvon Martin’s death, too, has brought thousands of protesters to the streets in Florida and around the country. This time, though, they are marching not for freedom or equal rights but for George Zimmerman’s head…
If we had a real civil rights movement today, it would not have rallied in Sanford, where Zimmerman was patrolling the streets, lethally waving his gun at neighbors. It would have descended on Tallahassee… to denounce the legislature that enacted the ludicrous Stand Your Ground Law that made Zimmerman’s actions legal. It would have rallied in Georgia, Indiana, Oklahoma and the two dozen other states that have enacted Stand Your Ground laws.Read full story in Forward.
Times are indeed different. We lack a King to envision and inspire and organize. We lack an angry young Dylan to philosophize, as his song goes, to mythologize, galvanize, immortalize the lonesome death of Trayvon Martin. Yet we have much to do. We need to work on the political level, on social and economic levels — and on the level of communities and families and individuals. We need to work on deep, ingrained attitudes. For Martin’s death is not just about him, or about Zimmerman, not just about their families — it’s about each of us, and all of us. As Dylan would put it, “now is the time for our tears.”
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.