For Blacks who were of age in the 1950’s, the chilling lynching of Emmet Till was the moment of recognition of the depths of racism in America. While the murder of Blacks was common, the brutal killing of the young boy from Chicago, who was visiting relatives in Mississippi, sent shock waves across America as it revealed the savagery of Jim Crow. Till’s mutilated body was shown in an open coffin because his mother, Mamie Till, courageously decided to put on full display the real consequence of racism in America.
Now, another young Chicago youth, 16 year-old Derrion Albert has become a martyr and symbol of a new hatred that is infesting the Black community. Unlike the Till murder, the source of this hate and its perpetrators look like us and live among us. Just as photos of the battered body of Till overwhelmed the emotions of Blacks in 1955, the chilling videotape of Derrion Albert being beat to death is provoking the same reaction today. How could this have happened? How did it come to the point where our children are now the prey of Black youth who seem predisposed to violence and demonstrate a total disregard for civility?
It is clear that somewhere between the shock and rage of seeing Emmet Till’s mangled body and the video of Derrion Albert being punched, kicked and hit with a railroad tie until dead, the Black community lost control of its children and allowed behavior that our elders would not have tolerated. There are many things we can point to as factors for the mayhem we are now experiencing, including the preponderance of single, female-headed households and the decline of the family unit, the disproportionate incarceration of Black men, failing schools and poverty. As legitimate as those factors are, they are no excuse for the utter lack of values among our youth today. Even during the darkest days of slavery and Jim Crow, the Black community exhibited a sense of self-respect and morality that far exceeded what white society was exhibiting toward us. It allowed the abolitionist and civil rights movement to stand on high moral ground in exposing the hypocrisy of our nation in its betrayal of its own democratic covenant.
We are now paying the price for dropping the ball, or more accurately, our young people are paying the ultimate price. Derrion Albert is not the first Black youth to die at the hands of his peers. There have been hundreds of others, some engaged in violence themselves but many simply the innocent victims of a ruthlessness that is now commonplace in our communities. Worse still is the fact that many of the victims are children, caught in the crossfire in “turf” wars between youth who own no real estate yet whose ignorance results in a death sentence for our most vulnerable. At a time when children should have the opportunity to be free in their movement and expression, we have allowed them to become target practice for those among us who have made it clear that we don’t matter.
To say that I am angry is an understatement. I watched the video of Derrion Albert being pummeled to death and became enraged. We all should be mad. Just as mad as we get when we know a police officer has used excessive force and just as mad as we were when hooded cowards in white robes committed murder in the darkness of night. There should be no comfort, no safe haven for youth and adults who bring violence upon us. To the same degree that they have told us to go @#ck ourselves, we should respond likewise and do everything possible to eradicate them from our presence.
It means we have to give something up. It means we can’t cover up for relatives and children of friends who we know are no good. It means we have to have a real conversation with police about cleaning up the streets, and coming to terms that sometimes it might get ugly. It means we need to be in our schools, parents and non-parents, and it means that Black men need to step up and be present on the streets, walking children home if necessary to give them a chance to see tomorrow. If we can’t protect our children, what does that say about us?