There is a passage from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s last book, Where do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, that has been a source of solace and encouragement to me over the years. I return to that passage today now that the jury has found George Zimmerman not guilty in the death of Trayvon Martin.
In any social revolution there are times when the tailwinds of triumph and fulfillment favor us, and other times when strong headwinds of disappointment and setbacks beat against us relentlessly. We must not permit adverse winds to overwhelm us as we journey across life’s mighty Atlantic; we must be sustained by our engines of courage in spite of the winds. This refusal to be stopped, this “courage to be,” this determination to go on “in spite of” is the hallmark of any great movement.
Where do we go from here, chaos or community?
Whatever the jury’s decision, it could never have alleviated the pain we feel as a result of the senseless shooting and killing of Trayvon Martin, who had his whole life ahead of him. Whatever the jury’s verdict, it could never have brought this 17-year-old black boy back to life. His death is a national tragedy that we pray will never happen again.
It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Trayvon’s death in part resulted from the thousands of negative stories and images circulated in our news, in our entertainment, and in our conversations every single day that criminalize young black men. It appears that George Zimmerman fell victim to these false stereotypes like so many others who fear our young men instead of seeing their promise and assets.
The deadly actions he took as a result of these misperceptions were sanctioned by unjust and discriminatory policies like Florida’s “stand your ground” law, which exists in some form in several other states, under which people allegedly fearing for their lives can use deadly force even when it is possible to retreat from a confrontation.
None of us can deny the pendulum of emotions that we are feeling today, but we would like to see our leaders, community members, and youth turn their energy towards positive action and advocacy as Dr. King suggests.
Together we can promote positive images of black men and boys. Together we can challenge and end discriminatory policies. Together we can fuel each other to be “engines of courage.” The Campaign for Black Male Achievement at the Open Society Foundations has never been more committed to supporting these efforts so that all Americans can feel safe walking down the street without the threat of violence.