Oped: Challenged by the hope of my elders
"There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love." — Martin Luther King, Jr.
"Make me want to holler, way they do my life." — Marvin Gaye
I find myself burdened by the faith of my elders.
They were generations of cooks and farmers, poets and laborers, of porters and housekeepers, soldiers and slaves, and they navigated a very different America. It was an America of signs barring entrance, and torture killings in the town square and how much am I bid for this fetching wench who is sure to bear you a litter of pickaninnies.
Yet somehow, for the most part, they never lost the conviction that this thing called America could be hammered into conformity with its own values if only they were patient enough, tough enough, resilient and excellent enough, to see it done. So they hammered at it.
And they hammered at it.
And in the course of time, they passed the hammer down to me. And I have hammered as best I know how.
But Lord, I am just tired.
On Monday, a jury in South Carolina deadlocked in the trial of a former North Charleston police officer who shot a black man named Walter Scott in the back. There was cellphone video, so jurors knew that when Michael Slager said he feared for his life, he was lying. What threat is posed by the back of an unarmed man — even a black one — who is 18 feet away and running from you?
And yet, a panel of 11 white people and one African-American could not find it in themselves to hold Slager accountable for this summary execution, could not bring themselves to say that this black life mattered.
This comes a year after a Cleveland grand jury declined to indict a police officer who shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice dead, two years after a Staten Island jury declined to indict the police officer who choked the life out of Eric Garner, three years after a jury in Sanford, Fla., acquitted the self-deputized neighborhood watchman who stalked and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, 24 years after a jury in Ventura County, Calif., acquitted four police officers who beat Rodney King very nearly to death, 61 years after a jury in Sumner, Miss., acquitted two white men who murdered 14-year-old Emmett Till so savagely that he was found with his right eyeball resting on his cheek.
It comes four years after the Supreme Court tore down the Voting Rights Act because it worked too well.
It comes a month after white supremacy was elected president.
And it comes about four months after NFL player Colin Kaepernick, later joined by other, mostly-African-American athletes, first refused to stand for the national anthem. Infuriated white conservatives could not understand why this handful of black people would not rise to honor America. Frankly, the marvel is not that some black people don't stand, but that most still do.
You get tired of being disappointed, you know? You get sick of being let down.
Yet I am challenged by the hope of my elders.
I hear King reminding me how the arc of the moral universe is long but bends toward justice. I hear Thomas L. Jennings declaring that "our claims are on America." I hear Curtis Mayfield ordering me to keep on pushing and Sam Cooke prophesying that a change is going to come and Mahalia Jackson testifying how she got over.
And I know that probably, eventually, my elders will beguile me back into faith, convince me there are reasons to keep hammering at America's ideals, or stand for America's song. But in this moment of fresh betrayal? Sorry, elders.
I'm damned if I can think of one.
— Leonard Pitts Jr. is winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary.