So I heard the President’s press conference remarks regarding Trayvon Martin’s murder and the Zimmerman verdict. I’ve also reviewed various people’s remarks to Obama’s latest statement on the incident.
Some are relieved to hear the President speak more deeply to the issues of race, racial injustice, the unfair treatment Black men receive in this society and how the legacy of anti-black violence and oppression have colored the way Black people view the criminal justice system.
Others were impressed with the President’s sober and personal statements including his recognition of how Blacks continue to be mistreated and mischaracterized. Finally, there was his discussion of ways to prevent such tragedies in the future (work with state and local police departments to revise their training procedures, encourage states to reconsider the validity of “Stand your ground” laws, and discuss ways to empower and support Black boys).
I too felt this statement was far more fitting of a national leader than his initial statement following the Zimmerman verdict. It was more sensitive, more reflective, did more to help people understand Black people’s perspective on the issue, and it posed some actions and resolution.
Yet we should not be naïve enough to believe that the president came to express this radically different tone and content on his own. As he himself suggested (“watching the debate over the course of the last week I thought it might be useful for me to expand on my thoughts a little bit”) his more reflective and corrective remarks come on the heels of mass protests, rallies, and strong national criticism of how he handled the incident.
Let this be an important lesson for those who fail to be critical of elected officials or who fail to take a stand against injustice. Take notice that grassroots activism, and informed political critique account for Obama’s new and enhanced perspective! Our collective outcry is responsible for pushing the president off of the fence on this issue. Let those who suggested we “not bring this issue to the president,” or who asked, “What do you want the president to do?” observe that the president himself (when pushed to) now says “are there some concrete things that we might be able to do,” and “I think it would be useful for us to examine some state and local laws to see if they are designed in such a way that they may encourage the kinds of altercations and confrontations and tragedies that we saw in the Florida case,” and that we should “ figure out how are we doing a better job helping young African-American men feel that they’re a full part of this society and that — and that they’ve got pathways and avenues to succeed.”
Respect and love then, to those who protested, rallied, signed petitions, and criticized the president despite those who opposed our efforts. Our activities pushed the president to take his new position and we should recognize that. On another note, I should remind those who question the president’s ability to intervene, to study the Civil Rights Movement. Didn’t our continued activism and critique of presidential administrations lead President Lyndon Johnson to push for and sign both the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act? Have we forgotten the demands raised by Civil Rights activists during the March on Washington were targeted to President Kennedy? Have we forgotten that these demands included:
- the passage of meaningful civil rights legislation
- the elimination of racial segregation in public schools
- protection for demonstrators against police brutality
- a major public-works program to provide jobs
- the passage of a law prohibiting racial discrimination in public and private hiring
- a $2 an hour minimum wage
- self-government for the District of Columbia
Yet today we insist that we don’t bring any demands to the president? This is why we must seriously study and embrace our history. Doing so empowers us to take accurate and empowering rather than apolitical and self-defeating positions in the first place. And so, the struggle continues….
Agyei Tyehimba is a former NYC public schoolteacher, co-founder of KAPPA Middle School 215 in the Bronx, NY, and co-author of the Essence Bestselling book, Game Over: The Rise and Transformation of a Harlem Hustler, published in 2007 by Simon & Schuster. Agyei has appeared on C-Span, NY1 News, and most recently on the A&E documentary, “The Mayor of Harlem: Alberto ‘Alpo’ Martinez.” Mr. Tyehimba is a professional consultant and public speaker providing political advice and direction for Black college student organizations, community activist groups, and nonprofit organizations. If you are interested in bringing Agyei to speak to your organization, please visit his page at the Great Black Speaker’s Bureau.