The violent death of young black people has been a spark for civil-rights activism in the U.S. since the days of Emmett Till and the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Outrage and grief, as if passed through our society's own catalytic converter, becomes passion and action. And today, the lessons of our civil-rights past are informing not just how the parents of slain Florida teen Jordan Davis cope with their 17-year-old son's shooting death, but also how they translate their pain into activism.
"I come from a family of civil-rights activists," said Lucia McBath, Jordan's mother, on Sunday's Melissa Harris-Perry. Noting her father's intense involvement with the local NAACP chapter during her childhood, McBath said his activism and frequent absences made a lot more sense to her now that she has become vocal after her son's death in November.
"He said, 'I wasn't there because I was married to the NAACP. I was married to civil rights,'" McBath said. "That is so profound to me right now because I understand exactly what he meant."
Jordan was 17, the same age as Trayvon Martin, when he was shot and killed last year by Michael David Dunn, a registered gun owner, in a Jacksonville parking lot. Dunn claimed he fired eight or nine bullets at Jordan and his friends in self-defense, and he will reportedly be using a Stand Your Ground defense when he goes to trial on first-degree murder and attempted murder charges early in 2014. That's already igniting more controversy over Florida's controversial Stand Your Ground law, which, the evidence suggests, is more easily used as a defense when the victim is black.
Family attorney John Phillips told host Melissa Harris-Perry that Stand Your Ground shouldn't apply in this case. Philips added that it's been inspiring to see Jordan's parents use their platform to argue against Stand Your Ground.
"Where Ron and Lucia excel, and [Trayvon Martin's parents] Sybrina [Fulton] and Tracy [Martin], is changing the law," Phillips said. "It's a butterfly effect...we've gotta do better."
Ron Davis, Jordan's father, said what his parents told him about the racism they experienced serving in World War II guides his feelings about his son's killing. "My parents always taught me to ... view all Americans as Americans and not separate," Davis said on Sunday's MHP. "For this to happen to our son, again, I'm viewing it as that this was a particular hatred that this person had for my son as a black child—but that's not the way America [is], and that's not the way the world is."
McBath told Harris-Perry that she communicated similar principles to their son during his short life. "Jordan and I had many discussions about these kinds of things, discussions about the fact he was a young black man trying to live in a world that would not always embrace him because of the color of his skin," McBath said. "We know Jordan really believed in who he was as an individual, as a person. We have no doubt that despite everything that has happened, Jordan has turned out to be who we expected."
McBath, Davis, and Phillips were in Washington this weekend for the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington.
"Being here has meant the world to me because I'm supposed to carry out what my father started," McBath said.
See the parents' first television interview after Jordan's death on The Last Word with Lawrence O'Donnell last December.