Last Friday afternoon I received a call from Jay Leno asking if I would appear as a guest on The Tonight Show to try to help make some sense of the national tragedy that had happened earlier that day at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn. The facts were still coming in as I rushed across town to the studios of NBC, but we knew by airtime that this would go down as one of the worst tragedies in the history of the nation; a tragedy that took the lives of so many precious and priceless children.
Searching for what to say to a national television audience, I did what I always do when I don't have the words for the occasion; I said a prayer and then I went to my library to consult with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
I wanted to re-read what King had to say when he gave the eulogy for the four little girls killed in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala., on Sept. 15, 1963. Though the circumstances were clearly quite different, I wanted to read once more what Dr. King had to say to a nation struggling with the needless loss of innocent young life. That moment had galvanized the Civil Rights movement and I wondered whether or not this horrific tragedy in Connecticut might represent the same in our time -- the moment where we finally decide to substitute courage for caution.
As the funerals for these precious children commence today, listen to King then:
This afternoon we gather in the quiet of this sanctuary to pay our last tribute of respect to these beautiful children of God. They entered the stage of history just a few years ago, and in the brief years that they were privileged to act on this mortal stage, they played their parts exceedingly well. Now the curtain falls; they move through the exit; the drama of their earthly life comes to a close. They are now committed back to that eternity from which they came. These children -- unoffending; innocent and beautiful -- were the victims of one of the most heinous crimes ever perpetrated against humanity. Yet they died nobly. They are the martyred heroines of a holy crusade for freedom and human dignity. So they have something to say to us in their death. Their death says to us that we must work passionately and unrelentingly to make the American dream a reality."
The lost lives at Sandy Hook Elementary School have something to say to the entire nation, but especially to black America. We will have blood on our hands if we miss this moment to protect the lives of poor, inner-city youth who more than most are subject to random acts of violence and death. Black youth and teens accounted for 45 percent of all child and teen gun deaths in 2008 and 2009 but only make up 15 percent of the child population. The leading cause of death among black teens ages 15 to 19 in 2008 and 2009 was gun homicide.
President Obama has finally signaled that he may now be serious about getting guns off our streets. Are we ready to stop the worship and do the work that's required to help him take on the forces of obstructionism on sensible gun control measures? Are we? If the president meant what he said at the vigil Sunday night in Newtown, then it's time to be the wind at his back and take him up on his request to "make him do it." He's going to need every bit of support he can muster to take on the gun lobby. Black folks represent the president's most loyal constituency and happen to be the group that stands to gain the most by standing up to the people who don't seem to think there is any room for a civil conversation between repeal of the Second Amendment and sensible gun control laws.
It's time for every black person in America, especially black elected officials, pastors, community leaders, national leaders, radio hosts, television hosts, bloggers, tweeters, columnists -- anyone and everyone with a platform -- to do exactly what we did when Trayvon was shot and killed. Speak on it. If you ever said anything about Trayvon, you are called upon in this moment to honor his life and the lives of black youth yet unborn by pushing the president and holding him accountable on this critical life and death issue. Right now.
If we don't, we will all have blood on our hands next time.