For The Boys Who See Themselves In Trayvon Martin

Jul 14, 2013
Originally published on July 14, 2013 5:54 pm
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But the Zimmerman file and verdict bring to the surface deep-seated issues around race and justice, especially for parents of African-American boys. Reverend Otis Moss III is pastor of the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. He's also the father of two. Last night, after the Zimmerman verdict was handed down, Moss held his 12-year-old son and faced a heartbreaking question. He recounted the story in today's sermon.

REV. OTIS MOSS III: With a slight tremble in his voice, he said: Daddy, am I next? I did my best to confront him and comfort him, asking God to give me words to calm the spirit of a 12-year-old boy who sees himself in the face of another young man named Trayvon Martin.

LYDEN: Reverend Otis Moss joins us now from Chicago. Welcome to the program.

III: Thank you very much.

LYDEN: That is a powerful story, and it had a powerful effect on your congregation today. What did you tell your son?

III: I told him about Emmet Till's mother who demanded the casket remain open so that they would not turn their faces from the horror but that they would live in love and make sure that her grief and pain would become an echo of the past.

LYDEN: And Emmett Till, of course, was the young Chicagoan who was killed in the South 60 years ago.

III: Yes.

LYDEN: What do you think the Zimmerman case and trial say about the way young African-American boys are viewed today in society?

III: I think the trial opened up a psychic wound within America that has always been present but other people were able to witness that many African-American boys, no matter how well-educated, no matter how accomplished, can always be viewed as a thug, a threat or a criminal who is up to no good.

LYDEN: And when you delivered your sermon today, you were wearing a notable outfit, a gray, hooded sweatshirt with the word Harvard emblazoned on it. Some of the congregants were also wearing sweatshirts. Tell me about that.

III: It was our hoodie Sabbath. We want it to identify in solidarity with the Martin family. I was wearing a Harvard sweatshirt - I might add that I'm a Yalie, but I had to allow someone to borrow my other sweatshirt - and a graduate of Moore House. But even if I'm wearing that particular sweatshirt, people can still make the assumption that I do not go to that school but that I'm already defined by a stereotype that operates within the racial imagination of many.

LYDEN: Are you worried that your son and people his age are going to be viewed as threats just by the way they're dressed?

III: I believe that that issue is already present within America, and it's our job to work to eradicate that. It's our job to ensure that we shore up the educational system that we have, economic distribution within all communities, and we erase the mark and stain of America's original sin and that being a racialized context of viewing human beings as less than.

LYDEN: Reverend Moss, do you think, in your judgment as a pastor, that it's possible to term what you referred to a moment ago as a psychic wound, into a productive conversation about race that could yield more affirming, positive results?

III: Oh, absolutely. I think that, again, that Emmet Till's mother is a prime example of that. I think the history and lessons of the civil rights movement speak to that, whether you're talking about Fannie Lou Hamer or Dr. Martin Luther King Junior, that we take these moments of frustration and we turn them into power, dialogue, love, injustice and we move forward but never forgetting where we came from.

LYDEN: I just would like to ask you one more question. As a parent, as a father, how do you interpret for your children what has happened here, and how do you encourage them to go forward?

III: I think that there are lessons from our past that are very instructive to allow my children and other children here at Trinity to know how our ancestors struggled and dealt with these issues, but yet we're able to overcome, to look at the stories from Sojourner Truth, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, recognize what the Pullman porters were able to do, that in the face of pain, they decided to organize and turn that pain into power, that in the face of degradation, they turned it into determination, in the face of tragic, they never let the tragic become a tragedy but always were able to overcome with a triumphant moment.

LYDEN: That's the Reverend Otis Moss III, the pastor of the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. Thank you so much for being with us.

III: Thank you very much.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.