August 16, 2007 — Vol. 43, No. 1
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Why do we spend time and energy trying to rescue heroes who are anything but heroic?

Tonyaa Weathersbee

For a minute there, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) had me worried.

Earlier this month, as the legendary civil rights organization that was once headed by Martin Luther King Jr. gathered in Atlanta to celebrate its golden anniversary, its president, Charles Steele, unleashed an announcement that would have induced me to choke on the champagne.

The SCLC, he said, was going to honor Atlanta Falcons quarterback and accused dogfighter Michael Vick.

Michael Vick.

Not Robert Clark, an Atlanta man who sat in prison for nearly 25 years after being wrongfully convicted of a brutal rape — and who Georgia lawmakers just got around to paying $1.2 million two years after DNA evidence led to his release.

Not Alan Crotzer, a Florida man who, like Clark, spent nearly a quarter of his life in prison for a double rape he didn’t commit — and who can’t get the Florida legislature to pay him for the years that he lost because of the racist and inept system that led to his incarceration.

Not a black man who is a true victim of the horrors of the criminal injustice system that King once spoke of. Instead, the SCLC picked Vick — the celebrity athlete who, if he is found guilty of the heinous and bloody charges upon which a grand jury saw fit to indict him, will have no one to blame but himself.

Mercifully though, it rethought that position.

And to that, I have to say, “Whew.”

State Rep. Tyrone Brooks of Atlanta told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he advised Steele against honoring Vick. Among other things, he reminded Steele that, unlike so many other young black people who get ensnared in the system and unlike the Clarks and the Crotzers of this country, Vick had money to pay a legal dream team to free him. On top of that, he said, Vick wasn’t even an SCLC supporter.

Brooks’ argument, it seems, worked. But it’s troubling that he had to make it. And while it is one thing to want to remind everyone that Vick is innocent until proven guilty, it’s quite another to honor him; to position him as a martyr before anyone knows whether he’s a villain.

That lapse also shows how far black leadership is adrift. Too many times, it spends too much energy trying to rescue perceived role models and heroes — usually athletes — from situations that stem largely from their own making.

It makes me think of the early 1990s, when then-heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson went on trial on charges of raping beauty pageant contestant Desiree Washington. National Baptist Convention leaders went into a tizzy.

Citing the plight of the black male as his rationale, the Rev. T.J. Jemison, who was head of the convention then, had member churches rallying to the cause of Tyson and demonizing Washington.

It was as if much of the energy that was needed to deal with serious business about the black race — business like the Rodney King beating and the seething injustices that fueled the Los Angeles riots in its wake — was diverted into Tyson’s troubles.

And even after Tyson was convicted, Jemison led a campaign to gather 100,000 signatures on petitions that venerated him as a role model, in hopes of obtaining a suspended sentence for him.

To me, it’s a sad day when black leaders have to go around trying to salvage role models who didn’t care enough about the title to uphold it to begin with. Yet for a minute there, it looked like the SCLC was about to use that same playbook with Vick.
I’m glad it decided not to.

In a way, I can see how this happens. Because it’s tough for most blacks, especially black men, to attain the money or status of a Vick or a Tyson, it’s hard not to see a white-run media and a white-run justice system as vultures circling around the prospect of their downfall. So few of us ever attain their status or wealth; therefore, we don’t want our stars to be dragged down by the unjust system that hurts so many of us all the time.
That’s why, instead of waiting to react to the verdict, some of us would rather react to the possibility.

“We need to support him no matter what the evidence reveals,” Steele told the Journal-Constitution, before the conference began.

If that support includes encouraging Vick to get counseling in the event that he is found guilty, then I’m all for it. But there are worthier black people out there who could use the support of an organization like the SCLC.

We also need to resist the temptation to make martyrs out of black men who, at the end of the day, might instead wind up as examples.

Tonyaa Weathersbee is an award-winning columnist for the Florida Times-Union and has appeared on “Nightline” and “BET Tonight.”

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