COMMENTARY: Crime and death at a young age: Is this why King died?

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c. 1998 Religion News Service

(Samuel K. Atchison is an ordained minister and has worked as a policy analyst and social worker to the homeless. He currently is a prison chaplain in Trenton, N.J.)

UNDATED _ In my hometown of Trenton, N.J., ceremonies observing the 30th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination were shadowed by sorrow over a more recent death. On April 3 _ the eve of the King anniversary _ Jenny Hightower, 14, was laid to rest.

Hightower was killed March 27 by a gunshot wound to the back of the head while joyriding in a stolen car. According to police reports, Hubert Moore, the 16-year-old driver of the car, struck a police officer with the car in an attempt to escape after initially stopping in an apparent gesture of surrender. Moore was wounded and Hightower killed as police opened fire in an effort to apprehend the suspects.

The incident sent shockwaves throughout the city, with some suspecting a racial motive in the shooting of black teens by white police officers.

Yet I found myself asking: Is this why King died?

For many African-Americans over 35, familiarity with and reverence for the heroes who fought in the civil rights struggle was a rite of passage.

W.E.B. Du Bois, A. Philip Randolph, Rosa Parks and Fanny Lou Hamer comprise but a few of the names in the African-American pantheon. Indeed, the names of our most prominent martyrs _ Medgar, Malcolm and Martin _ constitute a veritable mantra among socially conscious blacks.

Yet even more important than knowing the heroes of the struggle was appreciation for the struggle itself, for beyond the public issue of civil rights, the struggle _ as drilled into the heads of many black kids by our elders _ was about achieving greatness in every possible way, thus exposing as liars those who would characterize us as lazy, shiftless and good-for-nothing.

Thus King’s rhetoric about black emancipation was always accompanied by a exhortation to black responsibility. He spoke of the need for fiscal prudence among black families; implored clergy to develop ministries addressing both the physical and spiritual needs of their congregations; and used Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan to challenge us to embrace a”dangerous unselfishness”by helping others even at great risk to ourselves.

Within this context, the racially divisive issue of white cops shooting black children _ while important and worthy of investigation on its own merits _ nevertheless begs an equally important question: What were Hightower and Moore doing in a stolen car in the first place?

I raise this question not to be insensitive to the grief of the teens’ families, but because, as a prison chaplain and a father, I see a pattern that is dangerous to all the children of our community.

Each year black youths throughout the country are involved in violent confrontations with police, confrontations which the young inevitably lose, either through imprisonment or death.

In nearly every case, the first question on the minds of many blacks _ including myself _ is whether or not race was involved. And, given the history of officially sanctioned racial violence in this country, it is a question that needs asking.

However, but what concerns me just as much is that too often African-Americans fail to raise the more probing, conscience-disturbing questions: What were the children doing to warrant the attention of the police? Why were they violating the law? What values do we need to communicate to them so that youthful pranks do not lead to transgressions of the law that culminate in untimely funerals?

If blacks are to be true to the legacy of King and all the others involved in the struggle _ many paying with their lives _ we must be willing to search our own souls as vigorously as we investigate the motives of others.

To do less is to tarnish their memory.


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