And you say
What has become of our young that they take life so easily
Without guilt or sorrow
And I say
We have sown seeds of hatred and now we reap a bitter fruit
For we harvest the slain bodies of our children
We have planted them in soil that is centuries soaked in blood
And they have fed from the taproot of violence
And you say
It has not always been so
And the winds of history whisper
"There is blood in the soil."
---excerpt from poem "American Legacy" by Priscilla Hancock Cooper
When I wrote this poem in 1993, I was reflecting on the loss of young black lives through homicides and mourning the loss of innocence of my daughter, then 16, who had lost at least six peers to murder by handgun. When I was 16, I didn't know anyone my age who had died, much less been killed. It was a different world.
Today, I read this poem and reflect on the murders of nine African Americans at a prayer service in a church. The church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina once again galvanized the nation, uniting us in grief, anger and bewilderment. We empathized with the families who lost loved ones...mothers, sisters, aunts, fathers, brothers, uncles....who had done nothing but come to pray. How many more black people must die at the hands of whites before this nation can banish the demons of racism? How could a person sit in a church for an hour with the intention of murdering the people there? The questions seem to outweigh the answers.
While homicide continues to be the leading cause of death for young black men ages 15-34, the profile for perpetrators of mass shootings in this country tends to be young, white and male. From Columbine in 1999 to Sandy Hook in 2014, our nation has collectively mourned the loss of innocent young lives while trying to understand the anger, rage, hatred and mindset that would prompt someone to enter a school, college classroom or movie theatre armed with weapons for the specific purpose of committing mass murder.
The comments that Roof spewed as he struck down unarmed worshippers echo the racial bias that was forged in the institution of slavery. His remarks reflect the negative images created by a system that defined blacks as "less than human" even as they were stolen, bred and sold to build a nation with their unpaid labor. African Americans are confronted daily, in ways both large and small, with the results of deeply ingrained bias, hatred and fear...the shopkeeper who watches you suspiciously in the store, clerks at the corner gas station working behind barred windows and bullet-proof Plexiglas, and a mother's distress that her son will be mistreated at the hands of the police. We saw it again in Charleston with the added issue of race. Did Dylan Roof have any idea that the site of his assault, the historic Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, has been engaged in the African American struggle for freedom since its founding in the 1800s? Could he have realized that his racial attack came in the same year that this nation commemorates the 150th anniversary of the 13thamendment that ended slavery in the United States?
Has there been positive change? Absolutely. In Charleston, a white police chief and a woman mayor of Indian descent stood in solidarity, visibly shaken and outraged by this horrific crime. Law enforcement officers at the local, state and national level combined forces to capture Dylan Roof. The Charleston community, black and white, expressed collective sympathy and grief. An African American president expressed his anguish and frustration that this country has not resolved to end gun violence.
In Charleston, we see the destructive intersection of an American legacy of violence and racism. At the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, we share lessons that address both issues. Visitors from around the globe come to gain a greater understanding of non-violent protest as a tool for social change. "Foot soldiers" embody the courage and commitment of "ordinary" citizens who risked their lives and livelihood to end segregation. The faces of young demonstrators remind a new generation that they, too, have the ability and responsibility to make a positive difference.
And across the street, Sixteenth Street Baptist Church stands as a reminder that cowardly, racist murder in a place of worship is not new. The murder of four girls from a bomb in 1963 is indelibly imprinted on our collective memory. By example, that congregation and this community teach the greatest lesson of all - with faith and resilience we continue to move forward. In the words of a Negro spiritual that became a song of the movement: "Ain't gonna let nobody turn me (us) around."
Ms. Cooper is the Interim President and CEO of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute