My dad enjoys telling stories. Some educational. Some allegorical. Some heartfelt. Some hyperbolic. Some too everything to actually be true.
Each of these stories, though, are now etched in myÂ consciousnessÂ to the point that I can start, pause,Â embellish,Â and finish them as well as he can. Maybe he’s just a very gifted storyteller. Maybe I’ve just heard each of them too many times. Either way, they’ve become such a part of our relationship that it feels like they’re my stories now too.
Some of these stories are a bit more memorable than the others, though, and one of these involve the first time he became aware of Emmett Till.
He was eight years old when the famous Jet Magazine featuring Till’sÂ horrificallyÂ disfigured face hit the newsstands. It was at that moment that the civil rights struggle became real to him. Sure, he was somewhat aware of howÂ volatileÂ things were becoming in the South. And, although Lawrence County, PA wasn’t Jessup County, MS, he’d already experienced racism. NoÂ fire hosesÂ and lynchings, but racism still. But, for an eight year old, seeing stuff on TV or hearing your parents, uncles, and aunts talk about it doesn’t compare to the visceral impact of seeing an image like that. In his mind, if something like this could happen to a kid who was only a few years older than him, it could happen to him too.
My dad wasn’t the only one who had that reaction when seeing Till’s photo. For many people—White and Black people who weren’t necessarilyÂ on the front lines—the fight for equal rights was a real, but still somewhat abstract battle. The circulation of that picture served as one of the many “Wake up!” moments thatÂ occurredÂ in that decade, an instant that shocked people into action.
I thought of this yesterday while reading a few of the articles published this week marking the one year anniversary of Trayvon Martin’s murder. I’m sure we all remember how his death galvanized the nation. I seriously can not remember another time in my lifetime where so many people were so visibly united against injustice. We marched and cried. We organized and demanded. We rocked hoodies.
And, despite what some people seem to think now, this action did manage to achieve the immediate goal. A year ago, George Zimmerman was a free man. Right now, he’s awaiting trail for murder, and I do not think this would have happened without the motherf*cking ruckus we caused.
But, while Martin’s death had unique circumstances, it was a part of a much bigger issue—gun violence in our communities—that still remains epidemic. Yes, violent crime has been on a decade-long decline pretty much everywhere—even Chicago—but saying 600 murders a year is better than 900 is like saying AIDS is better than Ebola.
We’ve collectively tried everything from stricter gun control laws to support groups comprised of ex gang-bangersÂ to stem this tide, and nothing seems to really help. Well, we’ve tried almost everything.
I still read the local newspaper at least two or three times a week. (Yeah, it’s easier to read the paper online, but there’s something about reading, holding, and folding that still draws me to it) Often, I read about murders. Sometimes, people I personally know will be involved in the murder in some way. More times than not, though, I have no connection to the murder victim. They’re nothing more than a name, age, and location. And, while the news will sadden me, I usually forget all about it by the time I get to the sports. I doubt I’m the only one who goes through aÂ similarÂ process.
But, what if the paper and every other magazine, show, program, periodical, and website reporting on the news started running pictures of the deceased along with the stories? Not the prom and Facebook profile pictures that’ll occasionally be used when the story airs on the news, but the pics of how they look right now.
The crime scene photos. The bloodied, bullet-ridden bodies. The shotgun-shelled corpses left with half of a head. The seven year olds with holes where their hearts used to be. The faces with lifeless eyes still open, forever staring until a family member or kind detective closes them. The rotten, unrecognizable blobs laying in woods or underneath a houses, found only because it’s getting warm outside and they’re starting to stink.
I doubt they’d be as forgettable. I doubt we’d be able to turn the page as easily, to let them escape our minds as we read boxscores or play Sudoku. I doubt we’d be as willing to say and continue doing nothing.
It worked for my dad. I wonder if it would work for us.
—Damon Young (aka “The Champ”)