Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.
— Frederick Buechner
As I write this, on the cool and clearing Monday midnight following a raw, stormy afternoon, we don’t yet know who killed Jarmaine Walton, nor why. What we do know is that, about 20 minutes after sunset on Sunday evening, a 15-year-old boy was slain by a gunshot to the head, robbed of his life before he had much of a chance to live it, the victim of an act — of what? Anger? Revenge? A momentary lapse of reason? Pure random malice? — that can be neither rescinded nor recompensed.
Another thing that we know, only too well, is where this killing was done. It happened at Railroad Park, one of the brightest jewels in an urban crown that has received an unaccustomed measure of burnishing in the past few years. Railroad Park, which has won national awards and recognition as a spur to downtown revitalization. Railroad Park, which has become a preferred gathering place for people — individuals, families, groups, organized activities, major events — from every corner of the community. Railroad Park, which lies across the street from the soon-to-open Regions Field, the ballpark that is widely touted as the next major step in the remaking of downtown.
Since opening in September 2010, Railroad Park has become a highly visible source of the kind of civic pride that Birmingham has rarely been able to muster at any point in its history. For many, it is a symbol of both the fulfillment of Birmingham’s long-untapped potential and the promise of greater things still to come.
And now this. Now a murder, most of the immediate reaction to which has been — sadly, but predictably — divided along the deeply entrenched fault line of dichotomy that has defined our community since long before any of its current residents were born.
On one side of the chasm are the reflexive haters of Birmingham, by which in this case I mean the city proper. In the minds of the haters — I choose the term “haters” over “cynics” because cynicism requires a degree of knowledge and perspective that mere hatred does not — nothing good ever happens in Birmingham. What others view as certain signs of steady progress are, for the haters, as worthless as dandelions sprouting through cracks in asphalt. Likewise, every problem, every challenge and most certainly any and every tragedy is their confirmation that our city is degenerating, decaying, dying. For them, too, Railroad Park is a symbol, but one of folly, the futility of believing in the possibility of social progress and racial harmony.
These people are cowards, afraid of the world and willfully ignorant of how to live in it. One of the real tragedies implicit in this larger tragedy is that, in their minds, Sunday night’s shooting not only was inevitable, but even desirable. It justifies their fears and gives them the false sense of power that comes from saying, “I told you something like this would happen.”
On the other side of Birmingham’s great divide are the people whose hearts and souls are invested in the present and future of the city. These are the people whose eyes are on the prize and whose ears are attuned to the music that accompanies forward movement. They understand that those of us who love Birmingham and believe in its promise have a duty — to ourselves, to each other and to posterity — to make this a place where people live boldly and joyfully. They are united in the knowledge that it is within our power to choose the kind of city we want to be: one in which the fear of progress and the cowardly clinging to self-fulfilling prophesies of doom are overwhelmed and forever washed away by unending waves of positive thought and deed.
These people are courageous. I don’t say “fearless” because courage is not the absence of fear, but rather the refusal to have one’s life dictated by it and the willingness to stand up to it.
Meanwhile, we remain confronted with the truncated life of Jarmaine Walton. What does the murder of this young man say about our city? Unfortunately, it says that Birmingham is a city where young men die needlessly and senselessly and far too often, for reasons that may never be fully known or disclosed. Does that make us different from other large cities, or even from suburban and exurban locales across the nation and in our own back yard?
In most senses, no. We are a nation prone to violence, and even the most well-intentioned efforts to do something about it meet with obfuscation and failure. But in another sense, violence gets filtered differently in Birmingham because of our uniquely violent and oppressive history – the origins of the fault line that continues to divide us, one that all the policing in the world will not cure. If you require an example of how this filter works, the ways in which it twists our perceptions and magnifies baseless fears, ask yourself if the shooting death of a 15-year-old black boy would be generating the same outcry if it had occurred in Ensley or Bessemer or Fairfield.
How, then, to recognize and honor the memory of young Mr. Walton? We — those who love Birmingham — can redouble our efforts to see that the blessings of the progress and prosperity that we see the city beginning to experience are extended to all of our citizens. We can meet all challenges and opportunities by speaking resolutely the language of harmony and inclusion, rather than allowing ourselves to be dragged into the mud of rhetorical extreme and excess. We can love and cherish and build on the things — like Railroad Park — that bring us together, and reject those that pull us apart.
These things would be a beginning. Let us begin — and let us have the courage never to stop.