In December 2010, a black homeless man named Sherman Ware was assaulted by a well-connected white man named Justin Collison in front of a bar in Sanford, Florida. Collison, the son of a police lieutenant, was not arrested at the scene even though the attack was captured on video and shown to the police officers who responded.
My brother George Zimmerman, who lived in Sanford at the time, fought for justice on Ware’s behalf. George tried to enlist the help of the local chapter of the NAACP. He called their office, but they told him that they didn’t have the resources to help.
George made fliers about the incident and distributed them at black churches. He asked the community for help, informing them of what he perceived to be a grave injustice. George was incensed that although a warrant for Collison’s arrest had been issued, Collison had not yet been arrested.
Collison turned himself in on January 3, 2011. That’s when the NAACP suddenly entered the fray. The same organization that days before hadn’t had the resources to help George announced plans to meet with the new police chief and ask why Collison hadn’t been charged with a hate crime.
In the meantime, George continued to demand that the police be held accountable. He attended a community meeting, where he spoke to the newly installed mayor and other leaders. He urged them to revoke the outgoing police chief’s pension. “The law is written in black and white,” George said. “It should not and cannot be enforced in the gray for those … in the thin blue line.”
On January 25, 2011, Ware’s attorney Natalie Jackson, a member of the local NAACP chapter, announced that the interested parties had settled on an undisclosed financial award for the victim. Additionally, Collison would have to donate $1,000 to the local NAACP chapter.
Not long after, I had my own encounter with the NAACP. I was fortunate enough to meet NAACP President Ben Jealous at a spa in Centreville, Virginia. I struck up a conversation with him about how that year’s Oscar front-runner “The King’s Speech” brought to light the difficulty of living with a stammer. I mentioned that my father had suffered a pronounced stammer as a child and was ridiculed constantly. Jealous, who speaks with a mild stammer, pointed out that stereotypes about those affected by speech disorders had changed dramatically in his lifetime.
After polite dialogue regarding the dismantling of stereotypes over time — and cinema — I asked him if he thought organizations like the NAACP would one day be obsolete. Would America come to embrace true racial equality, making the existence of organizations dedicated to advancing the interests of certain racial groups unnecessary? Jealous’ demeanor soured, as did his tone. “Equality,” he said, “is not gonna happen in your lifetime, certainly not in mine.” I was baffled. Didn’t the election of President Obama signal that equality was just beyond the horizon? Jealous would have none of it. He dismissed my comments as naïve and abruptly ended the conversation.