Program Note: In the next installment of CNN's Black in America series, Soledad O'Brien examines the successes, struggles and complex issues faced by black men, women and families, 40 years after the death of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Watch encore presentation Saturday & Sunday, 8 p.m. ET
We devote several days on the blog to smart insight and commentary related to the special.
Reverend Al Sharpton
President, National Action Network
It was a brisk Saturday morning in November 2006, and I was en route to the weekly action rally at National Action Network in Harlem when my cell phone rang asking me to intervene at Jamaica Hospital in Queens where a young Black male had been killed by police. On the other end of the phone was Nicole Paultre, a 23-year-old woman who told me that her fiancé, Sean Bell had been shot and killed by the police early that morning.
I could not get anyone on the phone at the hospital where Sean and his friends were, (Trent Benefield and Joseph Guzman, who were also shot). So I turned my car around and rode over to the hospital to obtain more information. That moment started what became the Sean Bell movement for justice, to put an end to police misconduct in communities of color.
I later found out that Sean was killed on the day he was to be married, in an array of 50 shots as he and two friends (all unarmed and not even suspected of a crime) became the victims of a brutal police action. This action, representative of so many around the country, shows the continuing problem of how Blacks in general - Black males in particular - are treated differently from whites under the same circumstances and same municipalities.
It wasn’t three months later that I got a call from the mother of Mychal Bell, the 17-yr-old in jail in Jena, Louisiana, who had been charged with attempted murder for a schoolyard fight. In both cases National Action Network and I were able to help mobilize tens of thousands of people to march and protest, leading to indictments, but no convictions with the policemen involved in the Bell case. It also led to getting Mychal Bell out of jail and his charges reduced. But the bigger message is that despite people saying the civil rights movement and activism are things of the past and no longer needed, people on the ground who live real life every day know that this is far from true.
If one looks at the disproportionate rate of incarceration, disparities in health care, police brutality, and even the achievement gap in education, one can conclude that we have made some progress but we are not there yet. The dream of Dr. King and others in the 60’s was equal protection under the law and equal opportunity. We are closer but still not there. Malcolm X used to say if a man has a 6-inch knife in your back and pulls 3 inches out that is progress but you still have 3-inches of knife in your back.
I am 53 years old, born and raised in Brooklyn. The Black governor is now one year older than I, and I am supporting a Black man for president who is six years younger than I. I am part of a generation where I never sat in the back of a bus, never drank from a colored water fountain. I was a child when they marched in Selma. I don’t know anything about segregated lunch counters. I’m too young to know the battles of the 60’s but I’m old enough to have heard the stories first hand from my parents and those that fought those battles.
But cases like Jena and Sean Bell, and the education and health disparities, are our generation's lunch counters and back of the bus issues. And unless we do things like the march in Jena, no one will even act like they exist.
Yes, Black America today is different and yet it's the same because the gap is still there. Forty years ago when Dr. King was killed, this was a different America. But also 40 years ago the President of United States commissioned a Kerner Report to study the problem of race in America. That report found there were two Americas: Black and White and very unequal. The conclusion 40 years later in many areas unfortunately would still be the same. I do not raise it to hold on to the past. I raise it to challenge us to have real change in the future, and real change doesn’t come from ignoring reality.