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What Would James Agee Say About the George Zimmerman Trial?

During the George Zimmerman trial, I happened to be reading James Agee's Depression classic, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. The book describes the lives of three families of tenant farmers in Alabama, all of them white; poverty, not racism, is Agee's subject. But before he begins writing about the Woods, Gudger, and Ricketts clans, Agee takes care to include an episode that dramatizes the state of race relations in the American South. After the verdict came down, and it became clear that no one would be punished for Trayvon Martin's murder, I kept thinking about that incident again and again. 

In the chapter titled "Near a Church," Agee and the photographer Walker Evans, who had been sent to Alabama by Fortune magazine in 1936 to write an article about sharecroppers, happen across a black church and decide they want to photograph it. Unsure who to ask for permission, Agee spots "a young negro couple," a man and a woman, and decides to approach them for help. They are ahead of him on the road, and he quickens his pace to catch up. Then, all of a sudden, he sees that he has made a terrible mistake:

At the sound of the twist of my shoe in the gravel, the young woman's whole body was jerked down tight as a fist into a crouch from which immediately, the rear foot skidding in the loose stone so that she nearly fell, like a kicked cow scrambling out of a creek, eyes crazy, chin stretched tight, she sprang forward into the first motions of a running not human but that of a suddenly terrified wild animal. In this same instant the young man froze, the emblems of sense in his wild face wide open toward me, his right hand stiff ... not knowing what to do.

Agee realizes too late that he has triggered a reflex of terror: a white man running after a black couple, in Alabama in 1936, is an aggressor, a potential killer. He is immediately stricken by "the nakedness and depth and meaning of their fear, and ... my horror and pity and self-hatred," but nothing he can say can convince the couple of his good intentions: "The least I could have done was to throw myself flat on my face and embrace and kiss their feet." After reading this chapter, there is no need for the reader to ask why Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is devoted to white sharecroppers, not black ones. Agee has demonstrated that the racial barrier is so enormous, the fear and distrust so instinctive, that there is no way to cross it.

It seems to me that what George Zimmerman wanted, and what the law wanted by protecting him, is to make sure that the kind of fear Agee writes about will never go away. When he decided to accost Trayvon Martin, for no reason except racial profiling, Zimmerman assumed that he had the right that Agee disclaimed—the right as a white man to make a black man freeze and submit. Martin's mistake was in thinking that 2013 is not 1936, that the racial dynamic has changed, that he did not have to cower in terror before any random white man running after him.

Zimmerman's acquittal sends a clear message about which one of them was right. Racism, working hand in hand with the Stand Your Ground law, made it Zimmerman's right essentially to kill an African American for insubordination. To Agee, the assumption that such a right existed was horrifying and soul-poisoning. I keep wondering what he would say if he could see that, almost eighty years later, that right can still be enforced in court.

Adam Kirsh is a senior editor at The New Republic.