A Reflection by Mr. Ashley Morris
Do you remember James Byrd, Jr.?
The June 1998 lynching of Byrd in Jasper, TX left a profound and indelible mark on my life. I was fourteen years old that summer when news of his grisly murder traveled quickly around the country. Authorities eventually arrested, charged, and convicted three white young adult men of beating and defiling Byrd before dragging him by his ankles to his death for several miles in a pickup truck. One horrifying account of this heinous crime was the possibility that Byrd was conscious during the most of the ordeal, definitively dying with the severing of his head and right arm after his body fell into a culvert. The final indignity occurred when the three men deposited his torso in front of an African American church and cemetery.
I remember hearing the accounts of the murder as well as the feeling of sheer terror that overwhelmed me. My fear as a 14-year-old aspiring high school sophomore was wondering if such a thing could happen to a Black man in Jasper, TX, what would stop someone from committing the same insidiously evil act against me in Birmingham, AL? Further exacerbating my fear at the time was a crippling experience of sheer silence on the matter. If my parents or grandparents talked about the murder, they did not do so around me. My friends at the time did not discuss it either and I do not recall mentions of it in statements or condemnations made from bishops anywhere. As a Black Catholic teenager living and worshiping in Birmingham, AL, I felt as if I could not turn to my family, my friends, or the Church to be reassured that James Byrd, Jr.’s fate would not also be my own. I found myself clinging to my trust in the Lord, praying for safety from the evil machinations seeking to corrupt the hearts and actions of others.
Some twenty-three years later that exact same fear has worsened, growing exponentially with each breaking news alert announcing the unceremonious, untimely, and uncalled for end of a Black life. In twenty-three years, that same fear metastasized throughout my mind, body, spirit and soul as I recount at least five generations of wanton indifference to the dignity of Black life.
I imagine the concerns and anxieties of my great-grandparents when news of Bunk Richardson’s 1906 lynching in Gadsden, AL reached their doorsteps. I think of my grandparents’ fears and suspicions when learning of 14-year-old Emmett Till’s 1955 murder in Money, MS. I hesitate to ask my parents if they even knew about 13-year-old Virgil Ware’s 1963 murder in Birmingham as it occurred on the same day as the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church Bombing. I tremble having seen countless Black lives taken, far too many to name and including James Byrd, Jr., knowing that the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor have occurred during my 19-month-old daughter’s lifetime.
We share facts, statistics, and info graphics ad nauseam reminding individuals the world over that violent crime and abortions disproportionately plague our predominantly Black communities. The Mother Emanuel AME Massacre of 2015 in Charleston, SC made us fearful of safely praying in our churches. Christian Cooper’s May 2020 confrontation with Amy Cooper in Central Park made us fearful of birdwatching. Ahmaud Arbery’s February 2020 murder made us fearful of jogging in our own neighborhoods. Botham Jean’s September 2018 murder made us fearful of relaxing comfortably in our own homes. Atatiana’s Jefferson’s murder last year made us fearful of playing video games with a young relative in our own homes. Authorities profile and accost us for sleeping in the common areas of our college dorm rooms or waiting for business meetings at coffee shops. The specters of racial violence, discrimination, prejudice and death looming over Black lives for years relentlessly haunts us today with no immediate end in sight.
We are at a precarious time in human history where a great sense of urgency resonates loudly in our literal and visceral cries for justice to God the Father. This wailing for relief reverberates from a place of long-suffering, a legacy of affliction and struggle passed on through warnings, conditioning, and “the talk” despite our collective prayers and desires to live freely and authentically as children of God in sun-kissed melanin-enriched skin. While not the defining expression of our Black experience, our search for racial equality and equity, our struggle for human dignity and decency, our quest for reconciliation and restoration remains connected to us more as a dream deferred than the fulfillment of God’s promises.
Perhaps this is why I have remained terrified for my well-being since I was 14-years-old. The deafening silence that once characterized my understanding of James Byrd, Jr.’s murder now echoes loudly in a general refusal to fight and advocate for the dignity of Black lives amid all lives mattering from conception to natural death. If the fulfillment of God’s Will depends on our openness to serve Him, what fulfillment materializes from an inconsistent acceptance of the importance and necessity of Black lives?
I appeal to my sisters and brothers in Christ, as a Black Catholic young adult husband and father, to pray for God’s grace to empower and energize our movement and actions in fighting the sin of racism. At the same time, we must recall and pay heed to the prophetic words found in James 2:17, “Thus also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” Advocacy for my life, the life of my wife and daughter, of all people of color, is not a debate between political affiliations or systems of governance. We can no longer afford to estrange ourselves from the agonizing cries of our sisters and brothers yearning for justice. We can no longer cocoon ourselves in silos of complacency and comfort when sisters and brothers ache in our streets for rest and the peace of Christ. We can no longer claim kinship in Christ or proclaim a love of God whom we have not seen when we approach authentically loving the neighbors we see daily with apprehension, fear, resentment, or indifference. Not all can experience God’s promises if not all share in the gift of His grace. To paraphrase God’s message to Cain in Genesis 4:7, we must “act rightly” lest the sin of racism lies in wait for us, its urge for us. However, we can rule over it if we truly desire to.
The time to act is now, the time to move and motivate is now. My life is legitimately on the line, my daughter’s life is legitimately on the line, and our lives as members of the Body of Christ are on the line. There is no other way to express this prayer to God and this plea for help to one another. I pray that we act in this special moment in time now so that my daughter’s fourteenth birthday will not be marred with the memory of yet another Black life lost to the sin of racism.