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Lives That Matter

We need to choose our “martyrs” more carefully.

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I never met Freddie Gray. But in reporting on cases in "the pit" — the bottom floor of the Shelby County Criminal Justice Center in Memphis — I've met plenty of guys like the man so many African Americans in Baltimore have exalted to martyr status.

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They are the ones who suffer from a fatal flaw of omission, as they anxiously relate to me their stories of persecution at the hands of police, either before or after their arrests. I've patiently listened. Then I've gone back and checked their criminal rap sheets and found out the vital information, the arrest history they didn't bother to tell me.

In the case of the 25-year-old Gray, public outrage with his death has continued to overshadow a lengthy criminal record that included almost two dozen prior arrests from illegal gambling to burglary to drug possession. It makes me shake my head in wonderment that Gray's acknowledged criminal career and the highly questionable nature of his death in the custody of Baltimore police, should be elevated to a martyrdom that becomes the catalyst for people burning down their own neighborhoods under the banner of "black lives matter."

Why, given the illustrious history of the civil rights movement, are we African Americans now willing to let social media, racially motivated opportunists, and our thirst to create modern-day martyrs lead us to ignore the lack of moral character of some of these victims of police misbehavior?

In the dictionary, "martyr" is defined as a person who willingly suffers death on behalf of any belief, principle, or cause. Where does Gray fit into any of that? What in his life dictated his death should be elevated to the same category as those of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Medgar Evers, or James Chaney? Why should Gray's murder be categorized as a life that mattered any more than that of white civil rights icons Detroit housewife Viola Luiza or slain civil rights activists Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner?

The success of the civil rights movement didn't hinge on the skin color of those who knowingly and willingly were ready to sacrifice their lives for the tenets of social justice they believed in. It was because, in one of the most turbulent times in our history, those eventual victims of atrocities all embraced the unpopular concept that all lives matter, whether white, black, or brown.

I was warned not to write this column, because it might be construed as somehow being disloyal to black people. I was told it might be safer to take some middle ground, where I would express some amount of outrage for Gray's death and stress the need to continue efforts to establish a civilian review board in Memphis to have some form of oversight on potential overzealous MPD actions.

I do feel sadness for Gray's family, and I believe the Baltimore police officers involved in his death should be investigated. And now that the Baltimore prosecutor has filed charges against the officers (who were black and white, male and female), the investigation will go forth as it should. I also hope the Memphis City Council will give members of the civilian review board some teeth in order to help to be more effective watchdogs over incidents when law enforcement officers have possibly overstepped their legal bounds.

However, why I wrote this column didn't come to me until I sat across from my granddaughters and grandson for a joyous brunch in Overton Square. I've read all of this fatalistic crap about how black children are destined to fail in life. I've heard all the arguments. They'll have no parental guidance. I've ingested those cold statistics that project by the time they're in their teens they'll know a family member who's been shot or is in jail or is dead. Because they're black, they'll be prone to acquiring felony records that will immediately limit future career opportunities and they'll be sentenced to being on the welfare rolls.

None of those dire predictions will happen as long as my grandchildren remain in the loving embrace of their family. Whether they like it or not, they will be exposed and entrenched in the values of pride, honesty, and the drive to succeed. They will not help to burn down cities. They will strive to be active parts of the foundations upon which great cities and communities are built. But above all, it will be instilled in them, that wherever life takes them, they will always be ensconced in the truth that "all lives do matter," including theirs.

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