"African Americans are not only angry about the decision, they're angry about the context which produced it," said the chair of the Center for African American Studies at Princeton, rreferring to the controversial acquittal of George Zimmerman, who fatally shot Trayvon Martin, an unarmed African American teenager. May I say it isn't only African Americans who are "angry" and expressing outrage and sadness. This is not simply a "black" cause. It is clearly a "human" one, a "moral" one, a "universal" one.
How deep the experience of Trayvon Martin cuts into my consciousness. I'm a white man, an Episcopal priest and a writer. I began a lasting involvement in civil rights as a Freedom Rider in 1961. I've been an activist at numerous levels ever since. I believe it's finally time for activists of all kinds and stripes to unite, come together, and start a new era of race relations in the United States. Racism has long been called "America's cancer." It can't be solved by important leaders in high places. It must be solved by us, ordinary people of all kinds who care passionately. The time has come for absolutely fundamental change in our approach to it.
Najee Ali, who marched for Trayvon Martin in Los Angeles the other day, urged activists to not view the case as a black or white issue. He called it instead "a right and wrong" issue. "Anytime a young man goes to the store to buy some Skittles and some ice tea and then he is followed, he is profiled, he is murdered -- that is wrong." How many times we have been in a similar place in civil rights in the past. Now blacks and whites (and virtually everybody else) must come together and find a new place for justice, decency and a realistic basis for human hope.
I wouldn't have missed my own experience as an activist for social change during the past twenty five years. The initial Freedom Ride abruptly opened my eyes. I was enabled to contemplate a tragic universe of oppression and denial of justice. The legacy of slavery cast a forbidding shadow over equal justice. Saint-like figures Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. emerged as role models. So did untold others -- male and female, Latino, black, Asian, LGBTQ, young and old. New signs of hope were seen and heard in the land.
I remember when I wrote several short plays on racial themes. With then-youthful black actors Woodie King Jr. and Cliff Frazier we presented them in all sorts of places including college campuses, "underground church" theatres and a few giant cathedrals. The summer of 1965 was a special time. For example, i was in the Watts area of Los Angeles during its riots. I helped to hand out bread and milk to people who were hungry. I listened to their stories. I attended the funeral of Jonathan Daniels, a seminary student and friend, who was shot to death by an angry white supremacist. A few years later I participated in a "Peace Mass" inside the Pentagon. We were taken to a jail cell for "disturbing the peace." Actually we were following Martin Luther King Jr. in expressing nonviolent opposition to the Vietnam war. We believed strongly in peace and justice. We still do.
Now young Trayvon Martin's name is added to the list of martyrs in a long, ongoing struggle for human freedom. He will henceforth be on our list of heroes and martyrs. I wish he were still alive. Yet, of course he is.