Tuesday, February 26 marked one year since 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was killed by a gun wielded by self-appointed neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman after he saw Trayvon walking home from a 7-Eleven with a bag of Skittles and bottle of Arizona iced tea.
Black children, youths, and families know first-hand that the killing of Black children by gun violence is not new but a relentlessly unreported and under-reported plague that has been disproportionately snuffing out Black child lives for a very long time. Fifteen percent of children and teens are Black but 45 percent of all children and youths killed by guns in 2010 were Black. Black boys 15 to 19 years old were 28 times more likely than White boys the same age to be killed in a gun homicide.
Shortly after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote that it was time for our nation to do some soul-searching, and while the question “Who killed President Kennedy?” was important, answering the question “What killed President Kennedy?” was even more critical. Dr. King believed the answer was that “our late President was assassinated by a morally inclement climate”: “It is a climate filled with heavy torrents of false accusation, jostling winds of hatred, and raging storms of violence. It is a climate where men cannot disagree without being disagreeable, and where they express dissent through violence and murder. It is the same climate that murdered Medgar Evers in Mississippi and six innocent Negro children in Birmingham, Alabama.”
Dr. King further noted that the undercurrents of hatred and violence that made up this morally inclement climate were fueled by our cultural embrace of guns: “By our readiness to allow arms to be purchased at will and fired at whim, by allowing our movie and television screens to teach our children that the hero is one who masters the art of shooting and the technique of killing, by allowing all these developments, we have created an atmosphere in which violence and hatred have become popular pastimes.”
The same winds of hatred, storms of violence, and easy access to and glorification of guns that Dr. King believed killed President Kennedy would soon also kill Dr. King. Fifty years after Dr. King described our morally inclement climate, the outward signs of racial intolerance and hatred have undoubtedly diminished but there are still far too many reminders of the dangers lurking everywhere that devastate us all—like Trayvon’s senseless death for walking home while Black. Between 1963, when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and 2010, nearly 60,000 Black children and teens were killed by guns, more than 1,200 every year for 48 years. This is 17 times the number of reported lynchings of Black Americans of all ages since 1882 but we have not had an equivalent Black community anti-lynching movement to save our children from gun violence.
While there are troubling undertones of racial suspicion and fear in Trayvon Martin’s killing which must be addressed as justice is sought, the fact is that most Black young people murdered by guns are killed by Black shooters —just as most White children and teens murdered by guns are killed by White shooters. Sadly, the tragedies of Tucson, Aurora, Newtown and elsewhere made clear that none of us are safe anywhere or immune to the pervasive threat of gun violence.
We are all in the same boat and must act together to stop the plague of violence. Gun safety laws that only apply in one city or state can’t fully stop our national epidemic of gun proliferation and violence any better than we can stop a flu epidemic by vaccinating one family. We must struggle together to stop gun violence and to change the morally inclement climate that Dr. King warned about if we are going to protect all of our nation’s children everywhere.
Marian Wright Edelman is president of the Children’s Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to www.childrensdefense.org.