Oh, but you who philosophize disgrace
And criticize all fears
Bury the rag deep in your face
For now’s the time for your tears
Bob Dylan, “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll”
This Dylan song memorialized the unjust death of Hattie Carroll at the hands of William Zantzinger. As the song closes, Dylan chides Lady Justice for the injustice committed. The details of the incident and the song have been elaborated upon by several journalists, principally Ian Frazier who wrote “Legacy of a Lonesome Death” and Paul Slade who wrote “True Lies: The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll.”
On February 8, 1963, Maryland’s most prominent citizens attended the Spinsters’ Ball held at the Emerson Hotel in Baltimore. The guests included William Zantzinger, a rich white 24-year old tobacco farmer, and his wife, Jane. Among the staff working the event was Hattie Carroll, a black 51-year old grandmother and mother of 11 children who worked as a barmaid at that evening’s affair. Throughout the evening and deep into the night Zantzinger drank heavily and hit women guests and servants with his cane.
At approximately 1:30 a.m., while Hattie Carroll was tending to another guest, Zantzinger loudly demanded a drink from her and assailed her with a barrage of vulgarities and racial epithets. He also struck Carroll’s shoulder when she did not serve him immediately. After handing the drink to Zantzinger, Carroll complained to a co-worker that she was feeling deathly ill and shortly after collapsed. Carroll was taken to the hospital where she died, eight hours after Zantzinger had struck her. While the hospital ruled Carroll died from a brain hemorrhage, things were a bit more complicated given that an autopsy revealed that she suffered from hardening of the arteries, high blood pressure, and an enlarged heart.
Zantzinger would be tried on manslaughter charges in Hagerstown, Maryland, after he requested to have his trial moved from Baltimore. The trial began on June 19, 1963 and eight days later on June 27, a panel of three judges found Zantzinger guilty of manslaughter in the death of Hattie Carroll. The sentencing was postponed two months. On August 28, 1963, the same panel of judges sentenced Zantzinger—six months in jail along with fines totaling $625, a relative slap on the wrist. He was allowed to postpone his jail sentence until after he harvested his tobacco crop.
On the same day, about 70 miles southeast of Hagerstown, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington. In the shadow of the historic march, the injustice associated with Carroll’s death would have been lost from our collective memory but for Dylan’s song.
Much has changed since August 28, 1963. And much hasn’t. On July 13, a jury in Sanford, Florida found George Zimmerman, a 29-year old white-Peruvian and self-appointed neighborhood watchman, not guilty of second-degree murder charges in the death of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year old African American teenager.
It had all the appearances of a straightforward case. An armed 28-year-old man shoots to death an unarmed 17-year-old who was returning from the store after buying snacks. Even a half century after the Zantzinger case, however, such cases are anything but straightforward. Not if race is involved.
Trayvon Martin, the victim, was on trial. Zimmerman said and media repeated claims that he was a black youth “up to no-good,” as he walked in a neighborhood in which—the message was clear—he didn’t belong. He was, after all, a black youth in a hoodie—code that we all understand. There was talk of marijuana and school problems. All to buttress the claim that this armed man had to fear for his life.
The defense closed its case with a snowy video showing Martin at a convenience store making his purchase. It resembled the countless other videos we regularly see, capturing criminals in the act. Trayvon Martin was racially profiled and criminalized in Zimmerman’s trial. While Zantzinger was sentenced to six months in a county jail for the death of Hattie Carroll in 1963, Zimmerman will serve no time in the death of Trayvon Martin in 2013.
On the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, let’s remember the senseless and unpunished deaths of Hattie Carroll and Trayvon Martin, though they occurred five decades apart. And let us recognize: Dr. King’s dream is not yet realized.
Rogelio Sáenz is a sociologist and demographer. He is Dean of the College of Public Policy at the University of Texas at San Antonio. This was originally published by the Rio Grande Guardian.