I met the mother of Emmett Till in 1995 when she visited our church in Chicago—Mamie Till traveled unceremoniously with a group of children from her neighborhood. She never ceased talking about the tragic murder of her son Emmett in Money, Miss., in 1955. As a young mother, she courageously used the public’s viewing of her son’s mutilated body as an instrument of protest against American apartheid. Rosa Parks, the mother of the Civil Rights movement, once said that when she refused to give up her bus seat in Montgomery, Ala., her thoughts were on Emmett. Publicized miscarriages of justice have the spiritual power to move us from tragedy and crises to opportunities for social transformation. Ferguson, Mo., could be the new Money, Miss.
“Publicized miscarriages of justice have the spiritual power to move us from tragedy and crises to opportunities for social transformation. “
Michael Brown’s death demands our attention. We join President Obama and Attorney General Eric Holder in demanding justice and transparency in this case. The world will be watching and judging the American justice system. This local Missouri tragedy has become a global news story, evoking memories of America’s sordid racial past. Now, on the heels of the Trayvon Martin case and others, America’s racial divide is, again, front and center. However the Michael Brown case turns out, the imperfections of our union are exposed.
Why have the protests, police reactions, riots, and local government overkill been magnified in this case? Clearly, Ferguson, Mo., is a microcosm of America’s continuing racial tension. There are still places all over America where black people are unwelcome. Too many local police forces reflect the damnable doctrine of U.S. Supreme Court’s 1857 Dred Scott decision: “The negro has no rights … .” There are still separate and unequally funded schools all over the country, and there are communities mired in vicious cycles of poverty, racially segregated from opportunity. The life options of an American child are still determined by race and zip code; and black life, it seems, is still expendable—the stereotypes of threatening black masculinity placing all black males in the crossfire of American insecurities. For many, the American dream is a nightmare. And even those of us who do “make it” are one misstep, ours or someone else’s, away from discovering that blackness itself may be a capital crime.
“We must address the ways race has been used to create caste systems, widening wealth disparities and a permanent underclass. “
The crisis in Ferguson is an opportunity to confront the truth: We have not overcome the legacies of racial injustice. There are two different reactions, black and white, to the Michael Brown case, but let’s also pay close attention to the generational divide. Many younger whites, Latinos, Asians and others see this crisis as an opportunity to prove that our nation is a better nation today than it was in the past. Americans are altogether threatened by injustice, and we feel obligated to make sure that justice is done. We will demand justice in this case, and we also will insist that we deal with race-based structural inequalities in America. We must address the ways race has been used to create caste systems, widening wealth disparities and a permanent underclass. When the poor are brought in from the margins, and when their needs are at the center of our public policy, we all will prosper. When our legal systems and government budgets reflect our highest moral values, our true national interests are served. The peace we seek is found in justice.
Let’s deal forthrightly with the issues that Ferguson has illuminated. This is an opportunity for a new generation of activists. We must not stop our forward momentum until there is a flourishing of justice and human dignity for all of God’s children. If people of good will step up, we may one day look back at Ferguson not as a place of tragedy but of hope.
Marshall Hatch is senior pastor of the New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church (NMP) in Chicago and also serves on the CCDA Board as chairman of the Biblical Justice Committee. Marshall is our Thursday night plenary speaker at this year’s National Conference, addressing the topic: “Reconciliation & Justice: Essential to a Flourishing Community.”