When I think about the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, I think about all the young black people back in 1963 whose footsteps were powered by their pain.
And their dreams.
Many, like U.S. Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, then a member of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and the youngest person to speak at the march, made their way to the National Mall, their flesh still stinging from billy club beatings and hits from high-pressure hoses, their ears still ringing with slurs from racists.
Yet they didn’t give in to the hopelessness that such violence was intended to induce. They fought it. And because they fought it, they ended the unjust laws that would have kept them stuck at second class status.
But here we are, 50 years later, and the violence and discouragement that many young black people who marched on Washington endured is plaguing black youths again.
The difference, though, is that while the 1963 marchers who were beaten by racists saw it as the price of a better future, many of the black youths who are killing each other en masse in cities like Chicago can’t quite see that future through the haze of an unemployment rate of 42 percent and other issues.
And because they are acting on their hopelessness, they are, unfortunately, giving lawmakers excuses to create more unjust laws that are, like the segregationist laws of old, designed to keep them in line.
At the National Association of Black Journalists’ Convention recently, Benjamin Crump, the attorney representing Trayvon’s family, said that a focus of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington will be on justice for Trayvon, which includes a push to amend Stand Your Ground laws and to stamp down teenage violence.
The laws are on the books in 26 states. They basically give citizens the right to use deadly force if they think they are being threatened – meaning they can “feel” threatened by a black kid wearing a hoodie like Trayvon or a Middle Eastern kid talking in Arabic.
While Zimmerman claimed he shot Trayvon in self-defense, Crump said that Florida’s Stand Your Ground law was included in the jury instructions, and played a role in his acquittal.
“When we talk about Stand Your Ground laws, we’re talking about what they really are,” Crump said. “They’re shoot first laws, make my day laws, they encourage people to take the law into their own hands.
“As Trayvon’s parents have said, over and over again, our children have the right to walk in peace.”
Already, Crump said, a petition by Change.org has collected more than 2 million signatures. The Dream Defenders, a group of young activists consumed with making change and not jokes, staged a sit-in at the Capitol for 31 days. They left with a promise from House Speaker Will Weatherford to hold a hearing on the law this fall.
They also plan to be back to register voters.
It’s heartening that so many young people felt so strongly about the unjust law that helped Zimmerman get away with slaying Trayvon that they made life uncomfortable at the Capitol for a month.
But what’s less heartening is that rather than deal with the issues that disproportionately fuels much of the violence among black youths, lawmakers would rather use their suffering as a justification for laws like Stand Your Ground; laws which essentially make it easy for people like Zimmerman to get away with killing kids like Trayvon because society has bought into the stereotype of the scary and violent black male.
So I hope that this year, on the anniversary of the march that changed the nation, more young black people will follow the lead of people like Lewis and the Dream Defenders, and channel their discouragement into activism. I hope that when they march, they understand the new racism that is working against them through these new laws, and pledge to dismantle it.
Or, at the very least, not give it any help.
Tonyaa Weathersbee is an award-winning columnist based in Jacksonville, Fla. Follow her @tonyaajw. Or like her at www.facebook.com/tonyaajweathersbee.