Earlier this week I found myself on a flight to Atlanta so that I could stand in solidarity, as a father, with the parents of a murdered son. Like the few hundred others who gathered outside the Georgia state Capitol on a chilly Wednesday morning, I believed that I was seeking justice for the yet-to-be-explained killing of young Kendrick Johnson.
As soon as I arrived at the Capitol grounds, I was told that the Rev. Al Sharpton, the Rev. Joseph Lowery and Michael Eric Dyson would not be in attendance. It may have been the weather and it may have been the memorialization of Nelson Mandela, but whatever the reason, it was better that they were not there.
Before you call me a hater or begin to say that I have some commentary on any one of these men’s leadership, let me stop you. I have respect for and have been shown support by each of them. My assertion speaks to how often the personalities of our most committed block out the voices of the people.
Before we go there, it is important (for those who don’t know) to have a sense of who Kendrick was and what happened to him.
A 17-year-old student-athlete at Lowndes High School in Valdosta, Ga., Kendrick was found dead inside a rolled-up wrestling mat in the school gym on Jan. 11, 2012. As if his death were not bad enough, the ensuing investigation and handling of the young man’s remains are the making of a true horror story for the Johnson family.
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The Georgia Bureau of Investigation conducted the initial autopsy, ruling the death an accident. But the family questioned the ruling, suggested foul play, exhumed the body and had a second autopsy performed. The pathologist hired by the Johnson family not only concluded that Kendrick was killed by blunt-force trauma but also said he discovered that many of the teen’s internal organs were missing and that his body cavity had been filled with newspaper.
Video footage retrieved from the school also contradicts the initial investigation report that Kendrick was in the gym alone at the time of his “accidental” death. Many in the small Georgia town believe there was a cover-up, while others believe that a proper investigation was done and Kendrick’s death was a tragic accident.
Kendrick’s parents, however, believe that they are fighting local law enforcement, which refused to conduct a legitimate investigation; the funeral home, against which they filed a complaint for the handling of Kendrick’s remains; and even the U.S. district attorney, who seems unwilling to bring charges as swiftly as the family believes the existing evidence warrants. But this is a family willing to fight. They stand on a corner in Valdosta nearly every day with a sign asking for justice in the death of their son. But justice in America comes through politics and the courts.
The Johnson family came to the steps of the Georgia Capitol for a rally that will hopefully pressure Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal to push for a coroner’s inquest. Such an investigation could bring additional evidence and action more quickly than the year or more it will take for the feds to come back with something.
While the activists, local lawmakers, family members and supporters spoke from the podium Wednesday morning, I saw an elderly woman with a sign in the audience. It asked how she was supposed to talk to her grandson in a way that would protect him long enough to become a father or a grandfather before falling victim to the violence that plagues our communities. That sign spoke to me more than any speech during the rally.
And that is why it is often important to make sure we hear the voices of the unfamous. The words of Kendrick’s parents, proclaiming, “We refused to let them get away with it,” spoke to the resilience of everyday people who didn’t sign up to be activists but who are symbols for social justice.
I listened to the words of students from Spelman and Morehouse colleges as they represented the next generation of leadership. I also heard from local officials who are on the ground daily serving the very people the rally was addressing.
We need the support of nationally recognized voices because they attract necessary attention, but too often those voices (both intentionally and unintentionally) drown out the voices that most need to be heard and validated. I celebrate those with large voices who bring attention to the issues that the country and world are forgetting (many of them the men I mentioned). But I also celebrate the small but committed group of local activists, citizens, parents and civil servants who said, “I am going to show up and stay no matter who gives a speech.”
And it was the unspoken words expressed through the elderly woman’s sign that were the real reason I was there on my own dime and didn’t look to do any press while there. I have two sons I want to see live to be fathers and grandfathers. I was there because there was nothing that made Kendrick different from my boys. I could be the parent on the corner asking for justice for my Myles or Malcolm.
I pray that we don’t have to have another rally or vigil for the loss of our babies from any kind of violence. I am as tired of black-on-black crime as I am the class- and race-driven violence our babies face on a daily basis. But I realize that we have to start seeing every child as our own children before tragedy strikes in order to let those who want to bring violence to our babies know that our children do not stand alone.
As we push for justice for Kendrick and peace for his family, let’s all of us spend some time trying to see the children around us as ours. I know how hard that can be in a time and place where community is now just a neighborhood and where fear has created mistrust. But wouldn’t it make more sense for me to stand in solidarity with the parents where I live, seeing their babies as my babies now, so that we don't have to wait for a tragedy to say, “I am Leon Ford, Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant or Kendrick Johnson.” There is an African proverb that says, “I am because we are.” Let’s live it.