Focus on the details, and the cases seem very different. One was killed by virulent white racists, the other by a part-Hispanic neighborhood watchman who insists he faced a vicious attack. One was weighted down and dumped in a river; in the other case, police were called by the shooter himself.

Six decades and myriad details separate the deaths of Emmett Till and Trayvon Martin, two black teenagers felled by violence. Yet in the way America reacted to Martin's death – and the issues that echoed afterward – his case has created a national racial conversation in the much same manner as the saga of Till, infamously murdered in 1955 for flirting with a white woman.

Plenty of people do not see the Martin case as about race at all. But for others who study America's racial past and present, each killing is a defining moment for its era - a fraught microcosm of what we are, and what we are trying to become.

"Trayvon Martin is today's race case," says Christopher Darden, a prosecutor in the O.J. Simpson murder trial, another defining American moment. "I don't know that anybody can really sit there and objectively look at the evidence. It arrives with so many different kinds of emotions."

Just as the Till saga remains a searing archetype of the brutal segregation that gave rise to the civil rights movement, the Martin case captures the ambiguous meanings of race in America at a time when both the president and the lowest segments of society are black.

Emmett Till showed what needed to be done in 1955. Now, Trayvon Martin reveals to us the racial landscape of 2013.

"Trayvon Martin certainly is the Emmett Till of the hoodie generation," says Michael Skolnik, a board member of The Trayvon Martin Foundation and president of GlobalGrind.com.

"This case represents so much for our country," Skolnik says. "It represents issues of race, issues of police priorities for different communities. It represents the status of young black men in America."

On a February night in 2012, Martin was returning to his father's house from the store, unarmed, his hoodie up in a light rain. George Zimmerman, a volunteer neighborhood watchman, saw the 17-year-old and called police to report a "suspicious" person "up to no good." Minutes later, a bullet from Zimmerman's gun was in Martin's chest.

Did Zimmerman think Martin was suspicious because he was black, or was he justly guarding his neighborhood? Did Martin attack Zimmerman? If Zimmerman acted based on race, is that manifestly unjust or just common sense?

Such questions, and the lineage of American historical events behind them, have turned Martin's story into one that far transcends the facts of the case.

"I've been doing work around police brutality and racial hate crimes for over 20 years, but I've never seen one resonate with so many people like the Trayvon Martin situation," says Kevin Powell, president of the advocacy group BK Nation and editor of "The Black Male Handbook: A Blueprint for Life."

"He became this symbolic figure for how much has not changed in America in spite of a black man being in the White House," Powell says.

To some, the Martin-Zimmerman case is about media distortion when it comes to race. Some view it through the prism of whether Florida's "stand-your-ground" law is legitimate.

And for others, the case symbolizes that black people see racism when there is no evidence of it.

"I reject the idea that this happened specifically because of color," says Mychal Massie, a columnist and former chairman of the black conservatives leadership group Project 21.

"I'm not saying that Martin deserved to be shot," Massie says. "I'm also not saying he was a paragon of virtue. Indications are he was not singled out because he was black. He was singled out because he was there, Zimmerman was doing his job as a neighborhood watchperson, and he saw a stranger."

Massie strenuously objects to any comparison between Till and Martin. Till, Massie says, died in "a different time."

There certainly is no comparison between the killers, or the circumstances surrounding their actions: Two white men abducted the 14-year-old Till, pistol-whipped and shot him, then dumped him in a river with a weight barb-wired around his neck. Zimmerman, whose father is white and mother is from Peru, identifies himself as Hispanic. He says he fired in self-defense because he was being viciously beaten by Martin.

Yet Martin, like Till, died at a pivotal moment in U.S. racial history.

The Brown v. Board of Education case desegregating American schools had just begun the march toward equal rights, but Till's death signaled that the hardest battles had yet to be fought. Likewise, Martin died when a black man was leading the country for the first time.

But Raynard Jackson, a black conservative commentator, says the fact of a black president didn't stop a black kid minding his own business from being considered a criminal.

"It was based on a mindset of prejudice and superiority: `Who are you to walk in my neighborhood?'" Jackson asserts.

Reams of scientific evidence and real-life experiences suggest such profiling is widespread, and millions of people can feel its truth in their bones. But in the case of George Zimmerman, who exhibited no previous racist behavior of record, it's still nothing but an assumption and almost impossible to prove.

That's another defining feature of today's racial challenges: They're much more subtle than in 1955, and thus often harder to discuss or quantify.

Darden's own judgment tells him that race was a factor in Zimmerman placing Martin under suspicion: "It had to be. Race is a factor, a point of fact that people consider when they evaluate someone."

For Massie, the significance of the Martin case is simple: Black males commit a disproportionate percentage of crimes. "What it shows," he says, "is the continued predilection for misbehavior by so many young urban people, regardless of color."

"The tragedy of Trayvon Martin is that, if as many of us believe he initiated this assault, he paid the ultimate price for a bad decision," Massie says.

Trayvon Martin: victim or aggressor? George Zimmerman: racist or neighborhood protector? As with America in the Emmett Till era, much of today's race problem rests on the fact that America can't reach even a semblance of consensus on the problem.

"I think white America has one way of viewing race, because of their experiences, and American people of color have a very different perspective, because of their experiences," says Powell, the activist.

"If we are to truly have one America, then we've got to talk and listen to each other," he says, "and to understand that Trayvon Martin murder is an American tragedy, not a black tragedy."

__

Jesse Washington covers race and ethnicity for The Associated Press. He is reachable at or jwashington(at)ap.org. http://www.twitter.com/jessewashington

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  • Key Dates In The Trayvon Martin Case

    <strong>Feb. 19, 2012</strong> -- Trayvon Martin, 17, and Tracy, his father, travel from Miami Gardens to Sanford, Fla., to visit the elder Martin's fiancee in her townhome at The Retreat at Twin Lakes. <em>Photo courtesy of <a href="http://www.globalgrind.com" target="_blank">globalgrind.com</a></em>

  • Key Dates In The Trayvon Martin Case

    <strong>Feb. 26, 2012</strong> -- Trayvon Martin is walking to the home of his father's fiancee after purchasing items from a 7-Eleven store in Sanford. George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, spots Martin at approximately 7 p.m. and calls police. "We've had some break-ins in my neighborhood, and there's a real suspicious guy," Zimmerman tells police.

  • Key Dates In The Trayvon Martin Case

    <strong>Feb. 26, 2012</strong> -- Roughly seven minutes after Zimmerman's call to police, authorities receive a 911 call from an individual reporting a fight. During the call, the dispatcher hears a gunshot in the background and sends police units to the location. Responding officers discover that Martin has been shot in the chest. The teen is unresponsive and pronounced dead at the scene. Police find no identification on Martin and label him a John Doe.

  • Key Dates In The Trayvon Martin Case

    <strong>Feb. 26, 2012</strong> -- Questioned by police, Zimmerman informs them that Martin attacked him and he fired his gun in self-defense. Authorities confiscate Zimmerman's 9 mm semi-automatic pistol and take him to the Sanford Police Department for further questioning.

  • Key Dates In The Trayvon Martin Case

    <strong>Feb. 27, 2012</strong> -- Following a lengthy interview, George Zimmerman is released from the police station at approximately 1 a.m. Hours later, Tracy Martin contacts police to report his son missing. Investigators soon connect the dots and inform the elder Martin of his son's death. After receiving treatment from a family doctor, Zimmerman meets with investigators and reenacts the events of the shooting at the crime scene.

  • Key Dates In The Trayvon Martin Case

    <strong>March 8, 2012</strong> -- Tracy Martin holds a press conference, during which he criticizes the investigation into his son's slaying. "We feel justice hasn't been served," Martin tells reporters.

  • Key Dates In The Trayvon Martin Case

    <strong>March 9, 2012</strong> -- Martin family attorney Benjamin Crump tells the Miami Herald he is filing a lawsuit for the release of public records in the case.

  • Key Dates In The Trayvon Martin Case

    <strong>March 10, 2012</strong> -- Members of the New Black Panther Party, contending there has been a "miscarriage of justice," rally outside the Sanford Police Department.

  • Key Dates In The Trayvon Martin Case

    <strong>March 12, 2012</strong> -- Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee holds a press conference, at which he claims that investigators were unable to arrest Zimmerman because he was protected by Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law, which allows residents to shoot someone if they reasonably believe they are being threatened. "There is no evidence to dispute Zimmerman's assertion that he shot Martin out of self-defense," Lee says. In response, Martin's parents, Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, post a petition on the Change.org website calling for State Attorney Angela Corey to prosecute Zimmerman. The petition quickly garners support from multiple celebrities and receives nearly 900,000 signatures the first week.

  • Key Dates In The Trayvon Martin Case

    <strong>March 13, 2012</strong> -- In a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, the NAACP expresses doubt in the Sanford Police Department's ability to appropriately handle the investigation, asking the Department of Justice to review the case. "The NAACP has no confidence that, absent federal oversight, the Sanford Police Department will devote the necessary degree of care to its investigation," the letter says. Sanford police announce the completion of their investigation and turn the case over to the State Attorney's Office for Brevard and Seminole Counties. "Trayvon Martin and his family, interested persons, and the public-at-large are entitled to no less than a thorough, deliberate and just review of the information provided, along with any other evidence that may or may not be developed in the course of the review process," State Attorney Norm Wolfinger's office says in a statement.

  • Key Dates In The Trayvon Martin Case

    <strong>March 14, 2012</strong> -- Mary Cutcher, a woman listed in police reports as a witness who heard Martin's shooting, <a href="http://www.wftv.com/news/news/witness-sanford-police-blew-us-teen-slaying/nLSqk/" target="_blank">tells WFTV.com that police took only a short statement from her</a> following the shooting. "[The police] blew us off, and I called back again and I said, 'I know this was not self-defense. There was no punching, no hitting going on at the time, no wrestling,'" says Cutcher.

  • Key Dates In The Trayvon Martin Case

    <strong>March 15, 2012</strong> -- Sanford police issue a statement calling Mary Cutcher's TV interviews "inconsistent" with her sworn testimony. Meanwhile, Zimmerman's father, Robert, tells the Orlando Sentinel that his son has been unfairly portrayed as a racist.

  • Key Dates In The Trayvon Martin Case

    <strong>March 16, 2012</strong> -- Sanford police release eight 911 recordings in the case. One of the recordings includes a voice in the background screaming, "Help, help!" The screams are followed by the sound of a gunshot.

  • Key Dates In The Trayvon Martin Case

    <strong>March 19, 2012</strong> -- The Justice Department and the FBI announce they have opened an investigation into the shooting.

  • Key Dates In The Trayvon Martin Case

    <strong>March 20, 2012</strong> -- State Attorney Norm Wolfinger announces that a Seminole County, Fla., grand jury will review the circumstances of Martin's death.

  • Key Dates In The Trayvon Martin Case

    <strong>March 21, 2012</strong> -- The Sanford City Commission votes "no confidence" in Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee and calls for his resignation.

  • Key Dates In The Trayvon Martin Case

    <strong>March 22, 2012</strong> -- Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee holds a press conference and announces he is temporarily stepping down as police chief because his presence is a "distraction." State Attorney Norm Wolfinger recuses himself from the case and Florida Gov. Rick Scott announces that another state attorney, Jacksonville-based Angela Corey, will be replacing Wolfinger as special prosecutor in the investigation. Meanwhile, Rev. Al Sharpton, Martin Luther King III and other civil rights leaders and politicians hold a justice rally at Sanford's Fort Mellon Park. They demand an arrest in Martin's shooting. An estimated 10,000 people attend the event.

  • Key Dates In The Trayvon Martin Case

    <strong>March 23, 2012</strong> -- President Barack Obama tells reporters that the nation needs to do some "soul-searching to figure out how something like this happens." He adds, "If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon."

  • Key Dates In The Trayvon Martin Case

    <strong>March 24, 2012</strong> -- Members of the New Black Panther Party offer a $10,000 reward for the "capture" of Zimmerman.

  • Key Dates In The Trayvon Martin Case

    <strong>March 25, 2012</strong> -- Rev. Jesse Jackson speaks in Eatonville and encourages revisions to Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law. "If it's a moment, we go home. If it's a movement, we go to war," says Jackson.

  • Key Dates In The Trayvon Martin Case

    <strong>March 26, 2012</strong> -- Police release new details of the investigation, saying Zimmerman told them Martin punched him and slammed his head into the sidewalk several times. Acting Police Chief Darren Scott takes over as chief of the Sanford Police Department. Thousands of people gather in Sanford to mark one month since Martin was killed.

  • Key Dates In The Trayvon Martin Case

    <strong>March 29, 2012</strong> -- Zimmerman's brother, Robert Zimmerman Jr., tells CNN that medical records will prove his brother was attacked and his nose was broken.

  • Key Dates In The Trayvon Martin Case

    <strong>April 3, 2012</strong> -- Florida State Sen. Chris Smith (D-Fort Lauderdale) announces the formation of a task force to review the state's "Stand Your Ground" law.

  • Key Dates In The Trayvon Martin Case

    <strong>April 8, 2012</strong> -- George Zimmerman launches the website "The Real George Zimmerman" to raise money for his defense.

  • Key Dates In The Trayvon Martin Case

    <strong>April 9, 2012</strong> -- State Attorney Angela Corey announces her decision not to use a grand jury in the Martin investigation. The move eliminates the possibility of a first-degree murder charge.

  • Key Dates In The Trayvon Martin Case

    <strong>April 10, 2012</strong> -- Zimmerman's attorneys, Hal Uhrig (right) and Craig Sonner, announce that they will no longer be representing him.

  • Key Dates In The Trayvon Martin Case

    <strong>April 11, 2012</strong> - State Attorney Angela Corey announces the charging of George Zimmerman with second-degree murder. Zimmerman turns himself in to police and is booked into the Seminole County Jail. Mark O'Mara announces his role as Zimmerman's new attorney.

  • Key Dates In The Trayvon Martin Case

    <strong>April 23, 2012</strong> -- George Zimmerman's new lawyer, Mark O'Mara, enters a not-guilty plea on his client's behalf. Zimmerman is released from jail on a $150,000 bond. Per the conditions of his release, Zimmerman is required to wear a GPS monitoring device.

  • Key Dates In The Trayvon Martin Case

    <strong>April 24, 2012</strong> -- George Zimmerman shuts down his website. According to his attorney, the site raised $200,000.

  • Key Dates In The Trayvon Martin Case

    <strong>April 27, 2012</strong> -- Mark O'Mara launches the website GZLegalCase.com as the official site for Zimmerman's legal case.

  • Key Dates In The Trayvon Martin Case

    <strong>May 8, 2012</strong> -- At Zimmerman's arraignment, Seminole County Circuit Judge Kenneth Lester Jr. accepts his not-guilty plea.

  • Key Dates In The Trayvon Martin Case

    <strong>May 17, 2012</strong> -- Prosecutors release police reports, witness statements, surveillance videos and other evidence in the case.

  • Key Dates In The Trayvon Martin Case

    <strong>June 1, 2012</strong> -- Judge Lester revokes Zimmerman's bond, stating that his ruling is based on concerns that Zimmerman and his wife did not fully disclose their finances at the bond hearing.

  • Key Dates In The Trayvon Martin Case

    <strong>June 3, 2012</strong> -- Zimmerman is returned to jail.

  • Key Dates In The Trayvon Martin Case

    <strong>June 12, 2012</strong> -- George Zimmerman's wife, Shellie, is arrested on one count of perjury.

  • Key Dates In The Trayvon Martin Case

    <strong>June 20, 2012</strong> -- The Sanford city manager fires Bill Lee from the police force.

  • Key Dates In The Trayvon Martin Case

    <strong>June 21, 2012</strong> -- George Zimmerman's legal team releases discovery evidence on their client's website.

  • Key Dates In The Trayvon Martin Case

    <strong>June 29, 2012</strong> -- Zimmerman's second bond hearing is held. The judge does not immediately issue a ruling.

  • Key Dates In The Trayvon Martin Case

    <strong>July 5, 2012</strong> -- Judge Lester grants Zimmerman a higher bond of $1 million.

  • Key Dates In The Trayvon Martin Case

    <strong>July 6, 2012</strong> -- Zimmerman is again released from jail.

  • Key Dates In The Trayvon Martin Case

    <strong>July 19, 2012</strong> -- George Zimmerman relaunches his personal website.

  • Key Dates In The Trayvon Martin Case

    <strong>July 27, 2012</strong> -- George Zimmerman's wife pleads not guilty to perjury.

  • Key Dates In The Trayvon Martin Case

    <strong>Aug. 29, 2012</strong> -- An appeals court grants a request by George Zimmerman's defense team to dismiss Judge Lester from the case.

  • Key Dates In The Trayvon Martin Case

    <strong>Aug. 30, 2012</strong> -- Circuit Judge Debra S. Nelson is assigned the case.

  • Key Dates In The Trayvon Martin Case

    <strong>Oct. 19, 2012</strong> -- Judge Nelson grants a defense motion requesting access to Trayvon Martin's school records and social media posts. The state is also granted access to Zimmerman's medical records.

  • Key Dates In The Trayvon Martin Case

    <strong>Nov. 14, 2012</strong> -- Gov. Scott's "Stand Your Ground" task force concludes its final meeting and recommends no sweeping changes to the law.

  • Key Dates In The Trayvon Martin Case

    <strong>Nov. 20, 2012</strong> -- Former Casey Anthony attorney Jose Baez announces that he is representing Sanford police Detective Chris Serino, the lead investigator in the shooting.

  • Key Dates In The Trayvon Martin Case

    <strong>Dec. 3, 2012</strong> -- A new photo is released showing George Zimmerman with a bloody, broken nose on the night of the shooting.

  • Key Dates In The Trayvon Martin Case

    <strong>Feb. 5, 2013</strong> -- On this day, Trayvon Martin would have turned 18.

  • Key Dates In The Trayvon Martin Case

    <strong>Feb. 26, 2013</strong> -- Martin's parents hold a rally in his memory to mark the one-year anniversary of his death.

  • Key Dates In The Trayvon Martin Case

    <strong>March 26, 2013</strong> -- Zimmerman's defense team releases its witness list of 134 people, including Sanford police officers and 56 unnamed witnesses.