During the 1960s, it was common for black men to take up arms in defense of their communities. In Louisiana, where I grew up, a group known as the Deacons for Defense and Justice was organized by working-class black men, many of them war veterans, for protection against vigilantes.
Different time, different culture, I know.
What's not different, however, is the need for black men to take a stand for the well-being of their families and the protection of their communities.
Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old black youth, was shot to death last month in Sanford, Fla., by an armed "neighborhood watch" volunteer — George Zimmerman, 28 — who said the teen looked "suspicious." Martin's mother spent nearly a month pleading for Zimmerman's arrest. The Justice Department has finally decided to at least review the matter.
Mothers should not have to cry out to the nation for help with a local police investigation.
Jordan Shumate, a black ninth-grader in Falls Church, Va., was reading a poem in class last week when his white teacher interrupted and told him to read it "blacker" and said, "I thought you were black." Fairfax County school officials launched an inquiry into the teacher's behavior only after Shumate's mother brought widespread attention to the incident.
Boys do not want to see their mothers struggling. It's different with fathers. Seeing a dad redress a wrong teaches the son how to stand up for himself — and his family. No guns needed, just steely determination to protect the child.
This is not to say that Trayvon's and Jordon's fathers were not involved in their lives. On Monday, MSNBC talk show host Al Sharpton interviewed Tracy Martin, Trayvon's father, who said: "The family is calling for justice. We don't want our son's death to be in vain. We are looking for answers."
Yet it was Trayvon's mother whose call was eventually heard.
In so many instances, it is the mother who leads the most desperate fight to protect her son. Mothers cry the longest at their slain sons' funerals and cheer the loudest when their sons march across the stage in caps and gowns to get their high school diplomas.
So where are the men?
I'm talking about the men whom President Barack Obama has been calling on to "step up," the ones who are supposed to be involved with their families at home.
"Too often, especially during tough economic times like these, we are emotionally absent," Obama said in one of his annual Father's Day speeches, "distracted, consumed by what's happening in our own lives, worried about keeping our jobs and paying our bills, unsure if we'll be able to give our kids the same opportunities we had."
Asked whether Obama would be getting involved with the Martin shooting, press secretary Jay Carney told reporters: "Our thoughts and prayers go out to Trayvon Martin's family, but obviously we're not going to wade into a local law enforcement matter."
Obama has taken some criticism for his stand. But that is because too many black people seem to have forgotten, if they ever realized, that fathers are the ones most responsible for law enforcement in the neighborhood. The leading cause of death for black males ages 10 to 24 is homicide, as it has been for more than a decade, and it is no accident that the most killings occur in areas with the fewest fathers.
In the wake of Trayvon Martin's death, Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, issued a statement saying that the way Sanford police have handled the case "compromises the integrity of our legal system and sets a horrific precedent of vigilante justice."
The fact is, the integrity of the legal system was already compromised and vigilante justice has long been the accepted law of the streets in many black neighborhoods.
Sharpton has vowed to help overturn Florida's "stand your ground" gun law, which allows a gun owner to use deadly force against a "threat" instead of trying to avoid conflict by backing away.
"We want you to know, Mr. Martin, that you are not alone," Sharpton told Trayvon's father.
But Tracy Martin should never have been alone in this fight in the first place. Black men in any neighborhood ought to know one another well enough to take collective action in the face of injustice.
They need not be as militant as the Deacons for Defense and Justice, but they should be prepared to stand their ground.
© 2012, The Washington Post