by Peter Heltzel
New York Theological Seminary
Why does it take the death of black children to galvanize the prophetic imagination of our country? Yesterday George Zimmerman, a Neighborhood Watch captain, was arrested for the murder of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old African American man, who was fatally shot in Sanford, Florida on February 26, 2012. This arrest was provoked by protest marches around the country. When Trayvon’s parents came to NYC last month, I was able to join the “One Million Hoodie March” on Wednesday March 21st to protest the fact that the man that shot and killed Trayvon Martin did so because he was black and wearing a hoodie. Why did it take Trayvon’s death to inspire the nation to fight for justice?
It was the death of Emmet Till, a 14-year-old African American man, who galvanized the civil rights movement. Till was kidnapped and murdered on August 28, 1955 in Glendora, Mississippi by Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam. After being beaten and shot in the head in Milam’s barn, a 70-pount cotton gin fan was tied around his neck with barbed wire and he was thrown into the Tallahatchie River. This brutal murder touched the conscience and tapped the righteous indignation of the nation, and people began to join the fledgling Civil Rights Movement. Late that year on December 1, 1955 Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white man in Montgomery, Alabama and on December 5, 1955 the Montgomery bus boycott began.
In Birmingham, Alabama another set of murders woke up the nation. On September 15, 1963, the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham was bombed, killing four little girls, Addie Mae Collins, Carol Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley. This Tuesday April 10th I visited the Sixteenth Baptist Church with 36 students from New York Theological Seminary and learned that two African American boys were also killed that day, Johnny Robinson and Virgil Ware, one shot by a white cop and one shot by a white teenage boy. Ironically, the names of these two young African American men are often forgotten? Why do we sleepwalk through oppression of black youth until another bloody tragedy happens?