Blacks killing blacks in tragic numbers

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We should think about reviving the Freedom Rides of the old civil rights movement to deal with the scourge of black homicides in Pennsylvania.

This week we learned that our state's black homicide victim rate leads the nation. We're higher than Louisiana, Indiana, California and Missouri in that order.

Working with two-year-old FBI data, the Violence Policy Center, a Washington-based gun control group, puts the homicide rate in Pennsylvania at 29.52 victims per 100,000 people. The national average is 18.71 victims per 100,000.

All together, there were 398 black murder victims in Pennsylvania in 2004. Last year, Philadelphia alone reported 406 homicides, the biggest spike in murders in that city in a decade.

Pittsburgh brought up the rear with a relatively paltry, but still deadly, 95 homicides in Allegheny County. Seventy-four of those victims were black.

I'm only being half-facetious in bringing up the Freedom Rides in the context of the escalating black-on-black homicide rate in Pennsylvania.

Whenever I'm confronted with a disaster, I get nostalgic for the Old Days. We can learn how to confront the gangbangers of our day by looking at how the Freedom Riders dealt with hooligans then.

It's impractical, but wouldn't it be nice if a bus full of concerned citizens from every background pulled into the most troubled neighborhoods in Pittsburgh and Philly with a mission to confront the violence and despair found there?

Sound impossible? Are the young men who kill each other over drug turf and the pettiest slights imaginable more powerful than the collective, institutional weight of Jim Crow discrimination at its height?

No, they aren't even close. Yet Jim Crow is no longer with us.

Once upon a time, nonviolent protesters challenged Jim Crow laws by staging sit-ins at segregated lunch counters and bus stations across the South.

In 1960, when the Supreme Court outlawed racial segregation in interstate transportation, it spelled the end of state-sanctioned discrimination, but not its actual practice.

Real acts of courage were required to counter those who wouldn't let go of the racist traditions that had defined American life for so long.

Bigots throughout the South had so much contempt for the U.S. Supreme Court's mandate that they were willing to uphold their traditions of racial dominance with violence.

The original group of 13 Freedom Riders didn't have any illusions about how they would be received during their travels into the heart of Dixie.

The long rides of 1961 were met with violence. Eventually 1,000 volunteers of every age, race, gender and religious persuasion put their bodies on the line with the hope that their sacrifice would result in a more just society one day.

Sometimes their buses were firebombed. Sometimes they were arrested and beaten by cops. The Freedom Riders became intimately familiar with mob rage and the trauma wards of the South.

In 1964, three civil rights workers were murdered in Philadelphia, Miss. At the height of the era's racial violence, one would have been forgiven for believing things would never change. But they did.

The protests, the Freedom Rides and the moral indignation of millions were responsible for changing hearts and minds.

Fast forward to headlines the Freedom Riders would scarcely have imagined.

These days, a black man is far more likely to be murdered by another black man in Philadelphia, Pa., than lynched by a white man in Philadelphia, Miss.

Though Pennsylvania has more than its fair share of racist sympathizers, they're not responsible for the black-on-black homicide. No, these numbers reflect an "inside job" of truly tragic proportions.

To a great extent, the cause for much of the carnage in urban Philly and Pittsburgh is rooted in socio-economic realities folks don't like to talk about: class, education, lack of opportunity and nihilism.

Blacks, who are disproportionately poor and illiterate, are more likely to resort to solving problems with the easily available guns floating around.

It's not an essentialist construct like "culture" that causes blacks to shoot each other. All of American culture is steeped in violence and get-rich-quick schemes.

Blacks will have to rekindle the prophetic spirit that once animated the Freedom Riders and overthrew Jim Crow, who these days looks less like an angry crowd of white people and more like us.

Tony Norman can be reached at or 412-263-1631.


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