Emmett Till; 16th Street Baptist Church Victims: Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson; Little Rock Nine: Ernest Green, Elizabeth Eckford, Jefferson Thomas,Terrence Roberts, Carlotta Walls LaNier, Minnijean Brown, Gloria Ray Kalmark, Thelma Mothershed, Melba Pattillo Beals; Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis . . .
2013 marks the 50th year since the historic March on Washington, and as I reflect on the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, I cannot help but be disillusioned by current events in this nation surrounding the rights of black people.
In August, I was dismayed by the Supreme Court’s decisions surrounding Affirmative Action and Voting Rights. Their response to both cases reflect a nation postured to reverse the slow gains that the Civil Rights Movement had already achieved. As disillusioned as I was about those cases, nothing seemed more demonstrative of the reversal of this country’s progress toward treating black people as human, than the violence that black children have experienced in recent years.
Black children are no strangers to being victims of racial violence. Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs (Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl), for example, were but children when they were brutally beaten by slave masters, raped by them, and/or witnessed some heinous act of violence committed toward someone they loved. They represent the many children enslaved who were victims of violence and/or painfully watched someone they loved become victims of violence.
Once emancipated, black children continued to be witnesses to and victims of violence throughout much of the twentieth century. Malcolm X, for example, often recounted the death of his father. Earl Little was brutally beaten and placed on railroad tracks to be run over by a trolley car when Malcolm X was only six years old. Earl Little, an ardent supporter of Marcus Garvey, was vocal about racial oppression and was targeted by white supremacists and attacked by them for audaciously speaking out against racial violence. Prior to his assassination, he and his family barely escaped their burning home set afire by white supremacists. Earl Little’s murder, coupled with the fact that the insurance company refused to pay his family the life insurance that he purchased for himself, created a situation in which Malcolm X’s family spiraled into poverty. These are the circumstances–a violent racist America–that gave birth to a child who became El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (Also known as Malcolm Little, Detroit Red, and Malcolm X).
Malcolm X, though not around to see what happened to his father, was affected by the violence nonetheless. This violence made a significant impact on a young boy’s life, especially after his father’s death created such a degree of anxiety for his mother that she was eventually committed to a mental hospital. Whether they were victimized directly or whether they witnessed racial violence, this is the violent America that was a reality for black children.
My mother often tells a story in which she was a young girl in the 1940s, riding in the car with her parents and her mother’s cousin. They were travelling on Rt. 301 in Upper Marlboro, MD and they noticed two black sailors being brutally beaten on the side of the road by a couple of white men. My grandfather got out of the car and began to fight the white men off of the black sailors. My grandmother and her cousin helped by pelting the white men with rocks. All the while, my mother sat in the back seat of the car in fear of what would happen should other white people–particularly police officers–arrive on the scene. Had other whites arrived, what followed could have been catastrophic, and my mother was well aware of the consequences.
Black children were not only victims of white violence against black people as witnesses, but they also directly received the wrath of white supremacy by being the target of their violence. From Emmett Till, who was killed for allegedly flirting with a white woman to the four little girls who died as a result of the 16th Street Baptist Church, black children were the casualties of a war against black people. They were brave and they were s/heroes of the Civil Rights Movement, who deserve to stand equally as prominent for their valor as other players of black liberation movements.
What became quite evident very recently, as we watched the court case on the tragic death of Trayvon Martin unfold in the media, is that despite a history that makes clear that blacks have been victims of white violence, the American judicial system refuses to see us as such. (See post on Trayvon Martin, “From Don Imus to Zimmerman: Tracing Conversations on Race and Victimization”). What disturbs me most is that we cannot even identify children as being victims of violence, and they are generally the group that is afforded the protection of any civilized society. America wept, and rightfully so, for Newtown, but could not weep for Trayvon Martin because the state of Florida successfully vilified him. Many accepted the notion of Martin as a perpetrator of a crime and not a victim.
As we commemorate milestones in black history and struggle through our present day injustices, we must consider the children who have died and continue to die for Civil and Human Rights. In fact, we must honor their memory.
May we continue to honor the memory of Trayvon Martin. May we continue to honor the memory of Jordan Davis. May we continue to honor the memory of countless others who die each day because America refuses to imagine them as victims of crime. They are the most recent children who are victims of white supremacist ideologies that refuse to acknowledge us as human.