Every year since January 2003, it has been my tradition to remember a special young man who died on Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday. I decided not to wait this year because of what has recently been happening in Ferguson and New York, with the cases of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. Rather, I wanted to address the importance of what is happening in the news related to African-American youth and the fact that certain parts of what is occurring in our country is being ignored.
I know that it may annoy some people that I’m addressing an issue within the African-American community when I’m not African-American. I’m not here to judge anyone, but I do feel it is important to have a discussion about the issues. If this community or any other ethnic community wants to resolve an issue then they must look at all areas that may be problematic.
The instances of homicides of African-Americans by other African-Americans between the ages of 15-34 is appalling. It’s a problem that must be addressed if we really want to resolve substantive issues. “I think there’s fear of intimidation, harassment being legitimized by the fact that there is a high rate of crime, especially among young black men,” Fox News analyst Juan Williams said. “No. 1 cause of death, young black men 15 to 34 — murder. Who’s committing the murder? Not police. Other black men.”
CDC statistics support Williams’ observation that homicide is the number one cause of death among black men ages 15-34. While there is a theme going on right now in our country that African-Americans are being killed for reasons that are solely racially motivated, obviously the statistics do not support this claim.
Just today, I read a story of a 16-year-old African-American boy who was shot and killed yesterday as he walked home from church in Compton, California. He was reportedly shot multiple times by a gunman following a confrontation. The gunman has not been caught. A description of the shooter was not released to the public. Many speculate that the shooter is African-American as well.
Regardless of whether the shooter was African-American, the death of this young boy still impacts us all. His race does not change the profound sadness for this loss of life.
All issues of loss of life must be addressed to determine how lives can be saved.
Many, including myself, have been profoundly and personally impacted by a homicide and the loss of life. I have seen firsthand, the impact it has on the lives of friends, family, peers, and the community in general.
That’s why each and every year around King’s birthday, I remember a young boy, whose short life and homicide impacted my life. While I honor King for his tremendous impact on American history, I remember another individual on King’s birthday for the tremendous impression he left on my life, as well.
Prior to becoming a licensed psychotherapist, I needed to fulfill the requirements of an internship. I chose to work at a non-public alternative school to fulfill those obligations. An alternative school is basically a school for children and adolescents who are at-risk. It was at this school that I met Roy.
Roy was not your average high school student. In fact, Roy was a bit of a giant. He was a huskily built 17-year-old African-American boy who stood at least six feet tall and towered over every one of the students and staff, including me.
At first sight, you could feel really intimidated by Roy. He was a no-nonsense type individual who let you know right away if he didn’t like something. Most of the students both liked and feared him all at the same time. The school staff and I knew Roy, however, as a lovable giant teddy bear who was easily mistaken for an adult because of his size. But in truth, he was just a boy on his way to becoming a man.
Roy was also a creative person who loved rap music. I would later learn that Roy confided in his friends that he wanted to join the Air Force upon graduation. He also confided in his friends other things that no 17-year-old adolescent should have to even think about. You see, Roy was afraid that if he didn’t join the military and leave his neighborhood that he would die an early death.
Roy grew up in an area of town that was notorious for high crime rates and heavy gang activity. He knew that people didn’t normally flourish there.
On one particular morning in January 2003, Roy was on his way to school. He was doing what he usually did on a school morning. He was waiting for the bus along with several of his friends. Roy was teasing his peers just to get them laughing as he was most often known to do. Back at school, students who had arrived early were casting their votes for a new class president.
All of a sudden and without warning, a man from across the street shouted something at Roy. From all accounts, this man was armed with a loaded shot gun and Roy was his target.
Roy spotted him and immediately began to run away from his classmates. His friends who were left to just watch in horror would later say that they believed Roy ran to protect them. They believed he felt that if the gunman would chase after him then his friends would be out of harm’s way.
Roy didn’t make it too far. The gunman, we would later learn, mistook Roy for an adult gang member. He had been ordered to kill rival gang members. The gunman aimed the shotgun directly at Roy and fired. The blast was so powerful that it threw the young giant up against the wall of his apartment complex and abruptly broke his neck. The gunman ran away and left Roy there to die alone.
Roy had been elected class president that day by his classmates before the news broke that he had been murdered. Roy never knew that he had been elected. All that Roy would have known about that day was that it was King’s birthday. He was on his way to school to cast his vote for a friend for class president and to celebrate King’s life.
Every year in January, I too remember King’s birthday. But for me, it is even more significant because I also remember Roy and celebrate his short life; the life of a gentle giant who never got the opportunity to perhaps one day become someone like King.
Instead, I am left only with memories. One memory is that of sitting in Roy’s packed neighborhood church waiting for funeral services to begin. I further recall seeing six of his young friends carrying the casket of their elected class president and friend to his final resting place.
I watched as most of Roy’s school was in attendance. I saw students and staff alike unable to hold back tears. And the one memory that I will never forget, is seeing rival gang members sitting in that same church paying their respects to Roy’s family for a grave mistake that was made by a novice gang member who mistakenly gunned down an innocent child on King’s birthday.
King would have been appalled at the violence of one human being against another. I believe that King would have also been proud at how this gentle giant, in death, was able to bring people together from all walks of life and show them the devastation and senselessness of hatred and the awe inspiring power of love.
The emotional hurt for me is as strong today as it was almost 12 years ago. I can only imagine how hard the anniversary of his death must be for his family. As I sit here typing the last few lines of this very personal story, I can see that young boy walking into my office as if it were yesterday. He was a special kid who was robbed of his life and the opportunity to make history, just as King did.
For me, not to address significant issues that clearly exist when it comes to the lives of these young African-American boys and men, is to diminish the importance of the lives of young boys like Roy, who never got a chance to make it to manhood.
Roy’s story is just one story of many lives that have been lost to senseless murders.