Several years ago, in a class at American Baptist College we conducted a small research project in which we surveyed Black men. One of the questions we asked in the survey was, “What makes you cry?” It was interesting that the answer to that question in nearly every instance was related to the injustices that are borne by African Americans every day in this country. The breakup of a relationship, the death of a loved one, to be sure these are life events that can cause emotional, psychological, and even physical pain. Nevertheless, according to the Black men that I interviewed, by an overwhelming margin, the thing that brings tears to the eyes of Black men is to witness the injustices and inequities that people of color endure as a routine part of their existence here in the United States.
I was reminded of this recently at a gathering of people of faith here in Washington, D.C. on the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington. During our time together we screened the movie “Redemption of the Prosecutor”. The movie focuses on the life of Preston Shipp, a prosecutor for the State of Tennessee, and his transformation from an unattached appellate court prosecutor, to an advocate for change not only in our criminal “justice” system but in our attitudes toward the incarcerated. Mr. Shipp’s epiphany was ignited by the case of Cyntoia Brown, a sixteen year old girl who was tried as an adult for murder, and given a life sentence without even the possibility of parole until she is 67 years old. We did not get to see the entirety of Cyntoia’s story, but the small piece we did see was enough to make a Black man cry. And cry we did.
Cyntoia’s experience is not unique. Every year children who commit crimes are tried as adults and given adult sentences which virtually assure their inability to become productive members of society. In her book, “The New Jim Crow; Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness”, Michelle Alexander documents in heart wrenching detail the reality of a racially biased criminal justice system. To try a child as an adult, then sentence that child to spend all of their productive years in prison, with not possibility of parole until they have reached retirement age, is inhumane, hypocritical, unethical, and immoral. In a system in which the immorality is compounded by the racially biased prosecution and incarceration of people of color, it is Black and Brown children who are disproportionately subjected to this cruel and unusual punishment. The most recent statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics bear this out. In almost every category (including drug related offenses) Whites in general, and especially White youth are arrested in greater numbers than African Americans and Hispanic Americans. Nevertheless, according to the BJS, the number of young Black and Brown boys, under the age of 18 held in federal and state facilities as of the latest reporting (for 2011) is more than triple the number of young white boys of the same age. Thinking of the loss of these young lives, consigned to be perpetually locked out of the opportunities to live happy, productive lives as full American citizens, makes Black men cry.
As I sit here in Washington DC, one week removed from the observance of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, which was a march for jobs, and justice I am reminded of a verse from “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing“. The verse says, “We have come over a way that with tears has been watered” we are still on that muddy path, watered by the tears of people who hunger and thirst after righteousness. In spite of the words to the anthem we have not yet completely “come to the place for which our people sighed.” We have a way to go yet. I would be remiss if I did not say here that there is hope. Fifty years ago Howard Thurman, one of Dr. King’s mentors, noted that the problem of injustice and oppression characterized by the Jim Crow of his day was rooted in an attitude of the mind, and a mood of the human spirit. That until these where changed no genuine progress would be made. An unchanged mind, and unaffected spirit would only lead to at best an appearance of change. The attitude of mind, and mood of the human spirit that allows for a group of people to be viewed and treated as “less than” would only manifest itself in a more subtle and insidious way. Michelle Alexander once noted that “the core challenge to ending mass incarceration, is dispelling the myth that some of us are not worthy of genuine care, concern, and compassion.”
I am encouraged that there is growing recognition of the validity of that axiom. It is people of faith who are tasked with challenging the attitude of the mind and the mood of the human spirit. People of faith are responding! We are rising up to the challenge articulated so well by the Apostle Paul, “For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ”. Over a year ago the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference took up the challenge with its theme “Occupy the Heart”. The United Methodist Church, General Board of Church and Society is gathering and mobilizing Methodists across the country, as well as developing interfaith coalitions in collaboration with the Proctor Conference and others. There are others as well who are addressing this issue. There is a movement that is growing and it is important that is growing among people of faith and goodwill. We are the ones who have been touched and experienced the unconditional love of God. We who believe in true peace (the presence of justice for all, not merely the absence of violence) are committed to the work that we share with Dr. Martin Luther King, Dr. James Lawson, John Lewis, C.T. Vivian and others whose names we do not even know. We cannot rest until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. We cannot rest until the life and worth of Black and Brown mothers’ children is as important as the life and worth of White mothers’ children. We who believe in righteousness cannot rest until the dawning of the great day when all of God’s children are treated as worthy of genuine care, concern, and compassion. Until then we must work while it is day and do all we can to . . . . . . . .
Make a Difference . . . . . . . . For Life ! ! ! ! ! ! !