Listen: ‘Ain’t no way you can sit here and be silent’

The Rev. Jamal-Harrison Bryant eulogizes Georgia airman Roger Fortson, yet another young Black man killed by police.
Chantemekki Fortson, mother of Roger Fortson, a U.S. Air Force senior airman, holds a photo of her son during a news conference regarding his death, with Attorney Ben Crump, right, Thursday, May 9, 2024, in Ft. Walton Beach, Fla. Fortson was shot and killed by police in his apartment on May 3, 2024. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Chantemekki Fortson, mother of Roger Fortson, a U.S. Air Force senior airman, holds a photo of her son during a news conference regarding his death, with Attorney Ben Crump, right, Thursday, May 9, 2024, in Ft. Walton Beach, Fla. Fortson was shot and killed by police in his apartment on May 3, 2024. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

On April 27, 2015, I had the honorable yet unenviable task to deliver the eulogy for 25-year-old Freddie Gray, killed by the Baltimore (Md.) Police Department. That dreadful afternoon, with no ability to fathom that we were mere hours away from perhaps the darkest night in the history of my beloved hometown, I preached a sermon from the seventh chapter of Luke, where I sought to inspire young Black men everywhere to hear the voice of God metaphorically calling them to “get up,” as Jesus said to Lazarus as he lay dead in this miracle well-chronicled in sacred text.

Newspapers and television reporters from across the globe honed in on the crescendo of my oration, in which I proclaimed to those in attendance and to literally millions watching, “Ain’t no way you can sit here and be silent.” As much as I was preaching to an audience, I realize now that I was also challenging myself.

Credit: WSBTV Videos

Attorney of Georgia Airman killed in Florida to share new details from case on Thursday

Friday morning in Atlanta, it’s de ja vu all over again, as I will stand to speak on behalf of another young Black man: Roger Fortson, killed in his own home at the hands of the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Department in Florida.

Credit: Handout

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Credit: Handout

This brilliant young man, an enlisted serviceman in the U.S. Air Force, rose to the rank of senior airman and a leader among the troops at Hurlburt Field, where he was stationed. I could say many great things about Roger, described as a doting older brother and his mother’s dream, and all that he accomplished in his 23 years of life, but if allowed to let my humanness eclipse my pastoral assignment for a few moments, I would tell you that I’m just an angry Black man and there ain’t no way I can sit here and be silent.

The hard truth is that in the United States of America, whether you’re a corner boy on a bike in Baltimore City or a decorated airman in the U.S. Air Force, you’re equally susceptible to fall at the hands of law enforcement. When you’re a young Black man in these yet-to-be-United States, your ZIP code, your GPA, your occupation or your aptitude will not shield you from being overpoliced and undervalued.

So, Friday morning, as I seek to comfort a mother on the worst day of her life and to encourage thousands who mourn young Roger from around the nation, I’m really preaching to a constituency of one: me.

Trust me, you can be anointed and angry; sanctified and sick of it; trusting God and ticked off — all at the same time. Because as a pastor or a civil rights leader, the PTSD is real, and I am horrified to be in this space — again.

Elected officials and leaders from around the country will come to pay their respects, but I need them to know that their proverbial thoughts and prayers are not enough — not this time. I need them to act. I need them to act now! Give us a police force that is better trained, more culturally competent and less trigger-happy. Stop asking for our votes until you can commit to protecting Black lives from state-sanctioned terrorism at the hands of those sworn to protect and serve.

Botham Jean. Breonna Taylor. George Floyd. Rayshard Brooks. Freddie Gray. Roger Fortson. When will it stop? The loss of potential greatness in those taken so violently is incalculable for these families, for our communities and for this country.

The death of Roger Fortson has caused me to be more introspective and more prayerful. And though I am angry, I am not without hope. I still believe, despite much evidence to the contrary, that America can be as good as its promise. I, an avowed irrational optimist, cling to Psalm 30, in which David sang, “weeping may endure for the night, but joy comes with the morning.”

Even amid tragedy, injustice and trauma, I know that God is with us, and I shall never be silent — for Freddie, for Roger, for all of us.

Jamal-Harrison Bryant, an author, philanthropist and activist, is senior pastor at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church in Stonecrest, where the funeral for Senior Airman Roger Fortson of Atlanta will be held Friday.