We mourn Trayvon Martin, the young African American who, armed only with candy and a soft drink, was shot dead for the offense of “walking while black.”
George Zimmerman, the vigilante who shot him, has not been arrested, apparently protected by Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, which “authorizes” anyone to shoot someone whom he or she feels is threatening.
This surely is a test of our faith. Faith, the Bible tells us, is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. For decades, African Americans risked their lives if they walked in certain neighborhoods. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., however, had a different dream. And he helped build a movement to achieve the “substance of things hoped for.”
Now we must choose: We will decide if Trayvon Martin’s death is a moment, or becomes the spark for a movement. We can’t bring him back. But we can make his voice louder in death than it could be in his short life.
Emmett Till’s murder sparked a movement. After he was brutally beaten, his mother put him in an open casket to show the horror that he had endured. Although he was crucified as a warning to others who might demand freedom, his murder gave some the courage to join the civil rights movement.
Rosa Parks remembered. When I asked her why she decided to risk being beaten, jailed or worse by refusing to move to the back of the bus, she said, “I thought about Emmett Till and couldn’t go back.”
When King was assassinated in Memphis, it triggered a 40-year journey of progress, culminating in the election of an African American to the presidency.
Yet, that achievement is misleading. Athletes are cheered by fans of all races. Oprah Winfrey is trusted by viewers across lines of race. In a shining moment, Barack Obama is elected. But behind the klieg lights, we have a long way to go. The action in the spotlights has blinded us to the realities Trayvon Martin’s tragic death exposes.
African Americans are still too often victims of vigilante justice. African Americans are more likely to be arrested, more likely to be charged, more likely to be jailed for a nonviolent offense. A private, profit-making prison-industrial complex now lobbies for harsher sentences — and minorities are disproportionately the victims.
African Americans were more likely to be steered to risky subprime loans, more likely to pay high interest on auto loans, more likely to find it hard to get financing for businesses.
Over the past 30 years, opportunity has narrowed. Incomes for non-college-educated men fell, as labor unions were crushed and the exporting of good jobs undermined wages. More young people, disproportionately minorities, found themselves priced out of college or forced to go deeply in debt to gain the education they earned.
We must go from moment to movement and struggle to gain the substance of things hoped for. What do we hope for? A fair and healthy start for every child. An end to Stand Your Ground laws and vigilantes. Quality public education for everyone. Full employment and an end to discrimination that results in an African-American jobless rate twice that of whites.
Given the realities beneath the klieg lights, we need a new Kerner Commission to report on the status of race and discrimination in 21st century America. We need a renewed Civil Rights Commission that issues an annual report detailing our progress — or our regression — in racial relations.
We have to decide. Let us take a moment to grieve for Trayvon Martin, whose life was so brutally taken from him. Then let us move from moment to movement, and revive the struggle for a more perfect Union.
Rev. Jesse L. Jackson is founder and president of the Rainbow PUSH Coalition.