‘Roger was better to America than America was to Roger,’ pastor says of slain airman

McNair High grad was killed by Florida deputy in his apartment
Meka Fortson (center), mother of Senior Airman Roger Fortson, grieves during her son’s funeral at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Stonecrest.

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Meka Fortson (center), mother of Senior Airman Roger Fortson, grieves during her son’s funeral at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Stonecrest.

Scores of somber U.S. Air Force members dressed in full uniform consoled one another outside a prominent DeKalb County church Friday morning as they arrived for the funeral of a colleague shot to death by a Florida deputy.

Inside, New Birth Missionary Baptist Church Senior Pastor Jamal Bryant said during his fiery eulogy that racism is alive and well in the United States, and that volunteering to serve his nation overseas didn’t guarantee Air Force Senior Airman Roger Fortson’s safety at home.

“Regrettably, sometimes the skin you wear is more of a magnet to opposition than the uniform that you bear,” Bryant said. “Because in America, before people see you as a veteran, as an airman in the United States Air Force, they’ll see you as a Black man.”

A member of the Air Force dries a tear while viewing Roger Fortson before the start of his funeral Friday.

Credit: Ben Gray

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Credit: Ben Gray

He said the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. would shudder to know that in 2024, people are still “judged by the color of their skin before the content of their character.”

“When you are Black, even other people who wear uniforms for a living will assume that you are a threat to their life,” Bryant said.

“Roger was better to America than America was to Roger.”

Fortson was remembered by loved ones as an ambitious young man who adored his siblings, loved his country and dreamed of one day buying his mother a house.

Meka Fortson’s relatives held her up inside the church as she sobbed over her son’s flag-draped open casket.

Roger Fortson graduated from DeKalb’s McNair High School in 2019, then joined the Air Force. He was killed May 3 by an Okaloosa County, Florida, deputy who responded to what authorities said was a disturbance at Fortson’s apartment complex. He was 23.

Body camera footage released by the sheriff’s office showed that Fortson was holding a gun when he answered his door, but the weapon was by his side and pointed at the ground when the deputy opened fire.

Civil rights attorney Ben Crump, who is representing the family, called Fortson’s shooting unjustified and has accused the deputy of going to the wrong apartment.

Fortson was home alone with his small, white dog, Chloe, according to his family. He was on a FaceTime call with his girlfriend, making plans for the weekend, when she heard the fatal shots.

Meka Fortson (center) grieves during Friday's funeral.

Credit: Ben Gray

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Credit: Ben Gray

Two of Fortson’s Air Force commanders, his high school principal and his former baseball coach were among the speakers at Friday’s service.

Coach Marcus Salter said when Fortson joined the team, he was a “chipped-tooth, goofy, skinny kid who could run, but couldn’t hit and could barely catch.”

By his senior year, Fortson had developed into a team leader, Salter said, and helped McNair clinch its first playoff berth in decades.

“Roger was full of love, and that memory will forever be in my heart,” Salter told Fortson’s mom. He then thanked her for letting him have “one final talk” with the player who became his friend.

Civil rights leader Rev. Al Sharpton shared remarks via video, calling Fortson “a symbol of what is best in our community.”

He criticized the Florida deputy’s use of deadly force and told the crowd “we will not rest until we get justice for Roger.”

Meka Fortson (left) comforts Roger Fortson's cousins Brequita and Ricquita as they read a poem during the funeral Friday.

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Credit: Ben Gray

“We know this could have been any one of our kids,” Sharpton said. “When you see a Black man in his own home, you have the right to shoot first and ask questions later.”

The airman’s death has reignited the debate about police treatment of Black people in the U.S., and some have questioned whether Fortson would have been shot had he been wearing his military uniform.

“He was a bright light,” Crump told the crowd. “He was one of the best this world had to offer, and that’s why we can’t let them stain his reputation.”

Bryant praised Fortson’s family for their strength and noted that the airman’s funeral was being broadcast at U.S. military bases across the globe.

But he didn’t mince words while delivering Fortson’s eulogy, telling the crowd that “Roger died of murder” and saying he was “shot like a dog.”

Fortson served as a gunner aboard an AC-130J and earned an Air Medal with combat device in 2023. The award is typically awarded after 20 flights in a combat zone or for conspicuous valor or achievement on a single mission, The Associated Press reported. An Air Force official told the AP that Fortson’s award reflected both — completing flights in a combat zone and taking specific actions during one of the missions to address an in-flight emergency and allow the mission to continue.

Col. Patrick Dierig, commander of the 1st Special Operations Wing at Hurlburt Field in Florida, where Fortson was stationed, said that he served on missions in Iraq and Syria.

He called him “a great young man” who exemplified the values of an airman.

But that wasn’t because of what Fortson was taught in the military, Dierig said. It was because of the way his family raised him.

The coffin of slain airman Roger Fortson is removed from a hearse before his funeral at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church.

Credit: AP

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Credit: AP

“Air commandos wanted him on the team, not only because was a great air commando and a great aviator, but because he was a great person,” Dierig said. “And we are eternally grateful for him.”