This weekend, I realized anew that the work of justice … never ends.
It is what I thought as I observed the parents, relatives and friends of a young black man, Kendrick Johnson, who gathered to show solidarity and a resolve to fight to bring to justice the people whom they believed murdered him.
Even as the anger and angst over the acquittal of George Zimmerman for the murder of unarmed teen Trayvon Martin simmers in this country, the shooting and killing of black youth continues to balloon with very little attention given to this growing crisis.
Early this year, 17-year old Kendrick Johnson was found dead, rolled up in a wrestling mat in Valdosta, Georgia. An early report said that he had died of asphyxiation while trying to retrieve a shoe from that mat.
Johnson’s parents, however, never bought the story and in June, had his body exhumed and a second autopsy performed. The results of that autopsy said that the youth died from “non-accidental blunt force trauma.” They are seeking justice for their son, and have asked the United States Justice Department to re-open the investigation into Kendrick’s death. So far, they say, the answer to their request has been “no.”
Johnson’s parents are looking for support and assistance as they seek justice for their son, much like the parents of Trayvon Martin have done. To that end, they have called veteran civil rights activist Ruby Sales, founder and director of Spirit House, to help raise awareness and action on their son’s behalf.
Sales sees an alarming trend of black youth being killed under suspicious circumstances, and law enforcement either being involved in the killings or turning a deaf ear to the cries of the parents of the youth for justice. She gets calls on almost a daily basis from distressed parents whose children, mostly sons, have been killed and have not been able to get assistance or answers from law enforcement or local government.
Sales and the co-director of Spirit House, Cheryl Blankenship, went to Valdosta, Georgia this week for a rally that the community held for Kendrick. I was there as well, to record what was going on. Similar rallies have been being held consistently in Georgia since the results of the second Johnson autopsy were made public. Even as they stood in the hot sun at Johnson’s rallies, other mothers, hearing of SpiritHouse Project’s work, came to Sales. Many had tears in their eyes; all had stories that were hard to stomach. “Since this all happened,” said a young mother whose son was shot by police officers in Florida and left on the side of the road for three hours, “I have developed seizures. But I can’t stop. That’s my baby. I can’t stop.”
Her son did not die in spite of being left, but has been detained in a jail for the past 17 months. He has been unable to get needed medical care, stemming from his gunshot wounds, which he and his family requested, and was not allowed to complete his schoolwork so that he could graduate with his class this spring. Before being shot, he was a good student and promising athlete. He planned to go to college. Now, said his distraught mother, he doesn’t even know when he’ll have a trial, much less get out of jail.
Many of the parents of the dead youth do not have financial resources to hire attorneys. Some have public defenders who, they say, have shown little to no interest in their sons’ cases.
Sales hopes that by getting the stories out about these suspicious deaths that not only will be the public be made aware, but will be mobilized to push for justice and also be inspired to offer resources that the parents themselves may not have.
“These are no more and no less than lynchings,” Sales says. “It’s got to stop.”
Part of Sales’ vision and plan is to train the parents on how to effectively advocate for themselves and for others. “There’s no power in one or two sets of parents complaining about injustice,” she says, “but there is an enormous amount of power in numbers of parents coming together. (Policy makers) might be able to ignore the coffin of one young person; it would be virtually impossible for them to ignore, say, 35 coffins of young people, killed under suspicious circumstances.”
As Sales and Blankenship gather stories from parents, they are planning their next steps, one of which is to get the parents of these youth to Washington, D.C. to make a statement to their lawmakers and the nation about what’s going on.
Standing in the hot sun in Valdosta at the Johnson rally, Sales remembered “Ella’s Song.” Written and composed by Bernice Johnson Reagon, founder of “Sweet Honey in the Rock,” the song says:
We who believe in freedom cannot rest;
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.
Until the killing of Black men, Black mothers’ sons,
Is as important as the killing of White men, White mothers’ sons …
We who believe in freedom cannot rest.
“This is important work,” Sales said. “We cannot rest.”
I’ll be tagging along with Sales and Blankenship, recording and writing what we hear and learn. Any murder is tragic. However, however the growing murder of young Black people represents both a crisis for the Black community as well as for the nation. As if this is not enough of a travesty, police and coroners dismiss these brutal lynchings, shootings and beatings as suicides, accidents or acts of self-defense by police or individual vigilantes.
Black mothers crying for their children emit a wail that cannot be ignored. The wailing of Black mothers in this nation is getting louder and louder.
Perhaps we are at another turning point, or perhaps the move to get the stories of these killings out will change the heart of the nation from indifference to action. Perhaps, people of all colors in the nation will realize that none of us can rest until justice is a reality for everyone.
A candid observation …