August 9, 2013

When a Florida jury pronounced George Zimmerman not guilty in the shooting death of unarmed black teen Trayvon Martin on July 13, Ebony magazine Editor-in-Chief Amy Barnett had to cope with two surprises:

First, she didn’t expect that the former neighborhood watch captain would completely escape punishment for shooting Martin, famously bearing just a can of iced tea and a bag of candy.

And she had a magazine which had to be put to bed in just eight days. What to do?

What Barnett eventually did, was scramble her staff to pull together an 18-page look at the issues raised by the verdict, including four separate cover shots featuring Martin’s parents and their surviving son, along with NBA star Dwayne Wade, filmmaker Spike Lee and actor Boris Kodjoe — each posing with their sons in gray, hooded sweatshirts to symbolize the “hoodie” Martin wore the night of his death.

The headline on each: “We are Trayvon” (excepting the cover featuring Martin’s parents, which reads: “We are all Trayvon.”)

“It was a team effort,” Barnett said of the decision to go with the four covers. “We were thinking about what society would be talking about. Trayvon has become a symbol for African American youth… The idea is that all our kids are Trayvon.”

Considered the Life magazine of black America, Ebony enjoys a unique status among African American-focused publications. According to Barnett, staffers at Ebony originally considered using an illustration of Martin that Los Angeles street artist Shepard Fairey, renowned for his multi-hued 2008 “Hope” poster for then-presidential candidate Barack Obama, created for the magazine last year. Then they approached a celebrity to pose for the cover who turned them down; Barnett wouldn’t name the person.

Eventually, they reached out to a range of black male celebrities they knew had spoken out of the case before and might be willing to pose. Within days, they had gotten all four photos, dressing the celebrities and their sons in gray sweatshirts to take the emphasis off fashion and squarely on the symbolism of the hoodie.

Barnett said the photos and stories “were focused on reflecting the concerns of our readers in way that’s relevant.” A statement on the magazine’s website read, in part: “To be 17, Black and male, specifically, is tantamount to a crime, so said the actions of a certain George Zimmerman, Trayvon’s killer. After an emotional trial in the state of Florida, so too, it seems, said a jury of Zimmerman’s peers.”

The sons wore the hoods on their heads, Barnett said, to emphasize how any one of them could be treated as Martin was.

After Zimmerman was found not guilty on a Saturday, “we came up with the cover concept on Tuesday and had to execute four shoots by Friday to have the [completed magazine] moved on Monday,” Barnett said. “We had no idea until the verdict came in that we would be doing a cover like this. I didn’t think the verdict would come that quickly, and I didn’t think it would be [the result] that it was. We had to create an editorial package appropriate to the circumstances.”

Controversy over the covers erupted this week, after the magazine posted the images online and news of the photos spread. The website, founded by conservative commentator Michelle Malkin, posted a particularly barbed observation Wednesday morning, criticizing a headline in the magazine calling for repeal of Florida’s Stand Your Ground laws.

The gibe read: “It’s much easier to slap on a hoodie and pretend to fight for social justice than to recognize a black American is more likely to be murdered by another black American than some ‘White Hispanic’ man.”

Ebony responded to criticism of the cover on its Twitter feed. One message: “The racist trolls on our timeline objecting to our September covers need to have a seat at a Klan meeting and get out of our mentions.”

Another message reacted to online rumors the tea party movement might boycott the magazine:

Gawker and The Atlantic Wire both posted stories Wednesday debunking the idea that members of the loose conglomeration of conservative political groups known as the tea party movement might actually be boycotting Ebony, which Barnett calls “the publication of record for the black community.” Both stories traced the rumors to a single Twitter user, suggesting he was inspired by a comment from one person on a story about the covers published on

The notion of a tea party movement boycott of Ebony rocketed through social media; the hashtag #whitepeopleboycottingEbony began trending Thursday, as people posted jokes such as “#WhitePeopelBoycottingEBONY is like vegans boycotting barbecue.” Stories at The Daily Caller and The Washington Times chided the magazine for reacting as if the boycott had happened.

Asked on Thursday whether she thought the tea party movement was boycotting Ebony, Barnett replied “no,” declining to comment further on the controversy.

But the brief dustup over a possible boycott seemed a vivid illustration of the battle lines drawn among some in America over the issue of Martin’s death and Zimmerman’s acquittal.

As some political conservatives, often white people, celebrated the verdict and criticized those who saw deeper racial implications in Zimmerman’s treatment by authorities, many liberal and black-focused media outlets echoed concerns that black teens have become visible targets for racial profiling.

Asked how she felt about those who might consider the magazine’s stand unfair to Zimmerman, Barnett replied quickly.

“I’m not really concerned about that,” she noted. “Ebony is serving as a hub for all thoughtful people who want to discuss these issues…Unfortunately, given the way social media works, the extremists are the ones with the megaphone. But I’m proud of the fact that Ebony magazine was able to react quickly as it did.”

Support high-integrity, independent journalism that serves democracy. Make a gift to Poynter today. The Poynter Institute is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, and your gift helps us make good journalism better.

More News

Back to News


Comments are closed.