A hundred and fifty years ago, with dusk settling over Fort Wagner, 600 blue-coated infantrymen of the 54th Massachusetts charged over the Carolina dunes in the face of withering cannon and small arms fire. As they crawled up to the parapet and fought in bloody hand-to-hand combat, their brothers were torn apart by shell and shot. In that swirling hellfire, the African-American men of the 54th dispelled any myths that black soldiers were worth less than white ones. Only 328 men came out unharmed and uncaptured. Their commander, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, was cut down by a shot to the heart. During the thickest of the fighting, Sergeant William Carney grabbed the colors from the falling flag bearer, raced up the ramparts, and shouted to his men that "the old flag never touched the ground." For that bravery, the earliest action cited for an African-American, Sgt. Carney would later receive the Medal of Honor. Courage. Loyalty. Sacrifice.
And for what? Was that daring charge into almost certain death meant to preserve a Union where young African-American boys could be hunted down and shot in the streets like rabid animals? Was that fiery sacrifice paid in the blood of freedmen and freed bondsmen destined to be washed away by an apathetic citizenry, a cynical political class, a fear-mongering press, and blind race hatred? After all this time, all the battles and marches, triumphs in all fields, the tests of loyalty and back-breaking work, African-Americans are still the alien, the other, the hooded thug, the enemy.
Why is it so easy to dismiss the death of an innocent child, to feel no empathy for a grieving mother and father? That is the most troubling aspect of this case. No matter your views on guns or racial profiling or anything else, the single most important point is that a young man who committed no crime was shot dead on his way home. And no one has been held to account.
Why do we still cling to the myth that a black child is worth less than a white one?