By Oscar Blayton
NNPA Guest Columnist
Twenty one to one are pretty bad odds; particularly when they deal with life and death. But last Friday, ProPublica, an independent, non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest, released an analysis of data that reveals that young Black males between the ages of 15 – 19 have been shot to death by police at a rate that is 21 times greater than that of white males in the same age range.
In one sense, this analysis is important because it replaces assumptions with concrete facts. The Black community has long assumed that its youth was dying at the hands of police at a much higher rate than those from the white community. But it is difficult to make convincing arguments, or plan effective strategies against problems that are assumed to exist. And now that we have the data, now that we can show, empirically that the problem exists, we need to take specific action to address the problem.
In another sense, this analysis is important because it raises the question as to how we, as a Black community, allowed things to get so bad.
The release of this analysis coincided with the “Ferguson October” protest in and around St. Louis, Mo. over the murder of Michael Brown and other Black youth across the country by police. This protest was organized mainly by young people, and very few recognized “civil rights leaders” had a hand in bringing it into being.
And this raises the question as to whether the “60s Generation” is still up to the task of leading the efforts for meaningful racial justice in America. It might be the case that people such as Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson need to step back and let a younger generation of activist take the lead at this point. This is not to say that those of us who are counted among the “Baby Boomers” should not do whatever we can in the struggle for equality and dignity, but given the measure of progress since the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., it is not unreasonable to assume that new leaders might be more effective.
Those of us from the 60s generation who have to acknowledge that the ratio of police shootings got to be 21-to-1 during our watch. Our courage and determination may have shone brightly during the 50s and 60s, but we may now be more ashes than flame. We should take note of the St. Louis rally on Sunday, where the younger members of the protest made it perfectly clear that they had little interest in what most of the older participants had to say.
“Let them speak!” was the cry at Chaifetz Arena in Saint Louis on Sunday. This was a demand by the younger members of the rally to allow young people to take the stage and have their say.
“This ain’t your grandparents’ Civil Rights Movement,” rapper, Tef Poe told the audience, and he pointed out that it was not many of the clergy in attendance for the Sunday night’s gathering had done less than what was expected of them. It was the youth, Tef Poe said, who had carried the burden of going to the streets.
There are those in my generation who look at the way young people dress, tattoo themselves and listen to hip hop music and shake our heads wondering how people filled with such youthful foolishness could effect a serious social movement. But this only reminds me of how our parents and grandparents shook their heads at how “foolish” our afros and rock and roll were back then.
The youth of the 1960s were admonished to “take it easy” and to “go slow” by many of the older leaders of that day. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was only 26 when the Montgomery bus boycott began and some of the older clergy were reluctant to join the effort. He was 34 when he delivered his famous speech during the March on Washington. King led a corps of youthful activists. There were plenty of older people there, but by far, the bulk of the marchers and protesters were young people.
And let us not forget organizations like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee that was comprised completely of young people, nor should we forget that it was the students who sat in at the lunch counters and filled up most of the busses for the freedom rides. Many older people participated in the Movement, but the fire and the passion came from the youth.
What my generation did a half century ago is in the history books. It is a history to be remembered and respected. But it is not what is going to carry us forward into the future from here. Perhaps now is the time to recognize that this new movement needs new leadership, a younger leadership. The fact that the current leadership has allowed the odds to reach 21 – to 1 to exist speaks to the possibility that that time has come.
Oscar H. Blayton is a former Marine Corps. Combat pilot and human rights activists who practices law in Virginia.