Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin Misstates History

Pulitzer-Prize winning historian Dr. Doris Kearns Goodwin appeared on the March 25th airing of NBC TV’S  “Meet The Press” where she compared the Trayvon Martin slaying to the carefully planned 1955 murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi.   Below is the letter Executive Director Michael Meyers sent to Goodwin and “Meet the Press” host David Gregory:


Dr. Doris Kearns Goodwin



30 Rockefeller Plaza

New York, New York 10112


Dear Doris Kearns Goodwin:

I listened to you on NBC’s “Meet the Press” yesterday—and I was surprised, to say the least, by your misstatement of history as you compared the killing of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi circa 1955 with the recent killing of 17 year-oldTrayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida.

I was also startled by your saying there were four men tried and acquitted for the murder of Emmett Till.

According to the transcript of the “Meet the Press” panel discussion, you said in part,

“Three months later after the [Emmet Till suspects’] trial, where the four guys were acquitted within an hour, it produced outrage.”

Then, you added,

“The good thing that’s happening now, compared to then, then Mississippi acted defensively against the North. Now you’ve got at least the people in Florida, in Sanford, they’re marching” And, you associated the killing of Trayvon Martin with the “stand your ground” law in Florida, saying—“You’ve got the governor [of Florida] saying, ‘Maybe I’ll look at a revision of the laws.’ We have come somewhere.”

Such overblown rhetoric and misstatements of historic facts might be excused coming from any of the other unknowledgeablepanelists—such as the NAACP’s Benjamin Jealous—none of whom disagreed with your historical rendition—but coming from a respected historian I find your “facts” sloppy and biased. In your misstating this important history and pivotal moment in the Civil Rights Movement —and your comparing the killing of young Trayvon Martin to the overtly racist lynching of Emmet Till in 1955 Mississippi—shocks and misinforms.

First, what is your evidence for stating that four men were tried and acquitted for the murder of Emmett Till? Everything I have read about the murder trial of Till’s kidnappers and killers involved two men—not four; they were Roy Bryant, the husband of the white woman who Emmett Till whistled at, and the other, J.W. Milam, a relative of Bryant’s.

Secondly, the trial of the two men was a State of Mississippi prosecution. The State of Mississippi brought the prosecution and upon learning of the murder of Emmett Till child many Mississippians, including whites—at least initially—were shocked and appalled by the murder of the black child. Even the governor of Mississippi back then, who had dismissed the broad condemnation of the killing as a racially- motivated lynching—endemic to Southern racist culture—nevertheless called the killing of Emmett Till “murder.”

How can you factually compare the lynching of Till—by kidnap and brutality, which included the gouging out of one of Till’s eyes and the bashing in of his face and a shot into the child’s head by his assailants—to the troubling and disputed circumstances of young Trayvon Martin’s death in his encounter or confrontation with George Zimmerman—the Sanford, Florida neighborhood watch captain, who, admits to having followed and reportedly fought with Trayvon Martin? We still don’t have all the facts. And yesterday you did not have all the facts; and the facts known to you as of yesterday you either misstated or rhetorically exaggerated.

Zimmerman is not white. He is Hispanic. He does not fit the profile, according to his black friends, of “the

white racist killer,” even assuming the facts and motives are as you have imputed to him—“facts” which are neither self-evident nor undisputed.  Do you really think this of the killing of Trayvon Martin as a 21st century version of racially-motivated Southern violence—on the par of an Emmett Till abduction and murder? And, if you do, on the basis of what evidence do you support such a harsh accusation?

The implications of your statements and suppositions are indeed serious and troubling. Again, I understand the emotional clamor of the activists and the many “civil rights” and race advocates who are often loose with the facts and fast with their calls for indictments and “justice”—and their rush to judgment. But what is your excuse as a historian for coming to such hard and fast conclusions about what happened in Sanford, Florida without a scintilla of evidence as to the racial motive behind the killing of Trayvon Martin? His death is tragic and alarming, and could and should have been avoided had George Martin not acted precipitously. But injecting race so casually into this situation—comparing this incident to old-style Southern white racism is appalling. You apparently have no hard evidence that this death and killing was either racially-motivated or murder.


I await your response.


With best wishes,


Sincerely yours,


Michael Meyers

Executive Director


Cc: David Gregory, NBC News