One Chilling Poem From 1938 Highlights a Disturbing Truth About Police Killings

August 6th 2015

Alex Mierjeski

As the grim, one-year anniversary of the shooting death of Michael Brown approaches, much attention has been devoted to examining just how far the United States has come since then on matters of police violence, underlying racial tensions, and the inseparable connection between the two found in numerous, uncomfortably similar cases over the past year.

But the parallels stretch back long before August 9, 2014, to an era in which disproportionate violence wreaked havoc upon the Black community. The violence that characterized the Jim Crow era may not have lived on in exactly the same way, but it only takes reading a short poem from the time to remind us of the similarities between then and now—and the urgency with which these similarities must be addressed. In a new video put out by ColorofChange.org, the all-too-common images of the past year—grainy footage ripped from dash- or body-cams, or shaky cell-phone videos taken by bystanders—are set to the words of the poet Langston Hughes' chilling 1938 "Kids Who Die," which describes anti-activism violence of the Jim Crow era.

"[The video]," ColorofChange.org notes, "is a starting reminder that the assault on Black lives did not end with the Jim Crow era."


Frank Chi, who produed the video alongside Terrance Green, told Mic.com that the two "wanted to make a video that brings together the brutal images of the past year—seeing Eric Garner choked to the ground, Walter Scott shot in the back, Sandra Bland dragged out of her car over a cigarette—but display them in a way that pays tribute." The pair also hope the video inspires activists to keep fighting, according to Chi.

Rashad Robinson the executive director of ColorOfChange released a statement in conjunction with the video. Robinson reminded us that the violence didn't end during the Jim Crow era and pointed out the importance of August 9, the anniversary of Brown's death. The date "also symbolizes the incredible volition and power of the people of Ferguson and the birthing of another movement centered on Black lives." Robinson said.

On Sunday, events across Ferguson, Mo., where Michael Brown was shot dead nearly a year ago, are expected to draw thousands of people commemorating the one year mark with marches, concerts, and a moment of silence where the shooting occurred, Reuters reports.

Brown's shooting spurred a media firestorm, a national conversation, and a wide-reaching social movement, all dedicated to examining violent, overbearing police tactics directed at black communities. Yet despite all of that, the numbers still present a troubling reality. According to the website MappingPoliceViolence.org, July saw a nearly 40 percent increase in the killings of black people compared to the previous month, with 31 deaths—about one every 24 hours. Forty-five percent of those killed were unarmed, the site found.

On Thursday, the social activism organization DoSomething.org launched a campaign to highlight the number of police-involved killings, and the fact that police are under no federal mandate to share data on police violence. Various media organizations have launched investigative projects to track police shootings, including prominent outlets like the Washington Post, and the Guardian, which count the number of deaths in 2015 between 500 and 700. In June, Democratic Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.), introduced a bill known as the Police Reporting of Information, Data and Evidence Act, which would require states to report to the Justice Department any law enforcement-involved shooting, or any incident in which an officer or civilian is seriously hurt or killed because of force. According to the Huffington Post, the bill would also require states to include details in their reports like age, race, and location of the victims, and whether or not they were armed at the time.

"Too many members of the public and police officers are being killed, and we don't have reliable statistics to track these tragic incidents," Sen. Boxer said in a statement. "This bill will ensure that we know the full extent of the problem to we can save lives on all sides."