The shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin and its galvanizing effect on African-Americans has been compared to the 1955 lynching of Emmett Till.
I have resisted this comparison because it was what took place after Till’s death — the Montgomery bus boycott — that gave the death of the young man such a pivotal role in launching the civil rights movement.
Yet there is no denying that the death of Martin has moved this generation of African-Americans in a way that we have not seen in 40 years.
This post-civil rights movement generation — I am a member of it, because I was born in November 1968 — often has been relunctant to embrace a social justice agenda. Instead, too many have had a me-myself-and-I mentality. Very few issues have led this generation to say, “Enough is enough!”
The death of Martin may be the catalyst that I and others have said is long overdue.
Many have asked, “Well, what makes this case unique?” To be honest, it’s as simple as a young kid’s walking home from the store with a bag of Skittles and an iced tea, being seen as suspicious and ending up dead. The legal system will sort out whether George Zimmerman was justified in shooting Martin or whether he was wrong, but that still doesn’t change the reality that a young man is dead.
So we have to seek ways to end racial profiling, to end America’s deadly obsession with guns, to end our living in fear of one another, even when someone is doing nothing wrong.
It has been amazing to watch as millions across the country weighed in on the tragedy, signing petitions, organizing rallies and vigils, and demanding changes to the Florida law that some believe contributed to Martin’s death.
Yes, there is anger and frustration. But nothing is wrong with folks being angry about Martin’s death. During a recent interview with entertainer and humanitarian Harry Belafonte for my TV One show, “Washington Watch,” he said that even the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. recognized the benefit of anger in a social justice movement.
“He said, ‘We first need to be angry at our plight before we’ll act upon changing our condition,’” Belafonte said.
“So anger is a necessary force. It’s not so much that you’re angry; it’s what you do with your anger that finally determines the importance of anger.”
That’s why I vehemently disagree with my media colleagues who are quick to say that Zimmerman’s arrest should quell the voices of anger and satisfy protesters. An arrest is one thing; having a jury and judge hear the evidence is another.
Everyone I know who has been up in arms over this case understands that it’s not about bounties, burning down buildings or lashing out at whites, Hispanics, police, prosecutors or anyone else. Those advocating hateful actions have no place even being interviewed. They represent a minuscule population, but often overshadow and distract from those doing the real, substantive work.
But it is clear that there is a need to change a system that only responds to protests and outrage.
Justice is supposed to be blind. But too often, especially for African-Americans, the feeling is that justice works for others and not us.
But if we’re going to see a true change in this nation when it comes to social justice and the legal system, it will have to be led by young people. It will be led by those college students who called themselves the “Dream Defenders,” who marched from Daytona Beach, Fla., to Sanford, Fla., on Easter weekend, saying they were doing so to reach Dr. King’s dream of a better America.
It is going to require a 21st-century Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, the fearless, passionate and successful group that played a vital role in the civil rights movement, only to fall victim to more militant voices toward the end of the 1960s.
This change in America will not take place only in the halls of the legislatures and Congress. It is going to have to take place in towns, cities, communities and homes. It truly must be bottom-up and not top-down.
Belafonte, who was an adviser and funder to SNCC while also being a confidant to Dr. King, says the only way we are going to see a truly changed America is if the nation’s young rise up in a moral army for good and righteousness.
But he cautions that it can’t be exclusively the province of political leaders, which he says was a miscalculation of the civil rights movement.
“We had to have young, bright men and women sitting in places that could legislate the branches of government, that could write laws and become engaged,” he said.
“And once we got them into the positions, we no longer had these people in the community servicing the growth and the counseling of Young Turks coming up.
“The grass-roots infrastructure became the political infrastructure. We’re now getting back to that, and I think we’re getting back to that in a very healthy way.”