Why we will march for Heather Ellis

OPINION - The greater concern is that Heather's dilemma is not the root of the problem - it is merely a symptom...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

On November 16, 2009, the Your Black World Coalition, NAACP, National Action Network, and Southern Christian Leadership Conference plan to converge on the small town of Kennett, Missouri to fight for justice in the case of Heather Ellis, a 24-year-old college student who faces 15 years in prison for cutting line at a Wal-Mart.

When Justin and Journi, my assistant’s children, brought this case to my attention, I was heartbroken. Their passion about the charges pushed me to action, so I reached out to others to form the “Journey for Justice” to honor the two young children who inspired us to take action in Heather’s case.

I have spoken with the Ellis family extensively, and I’ve also spoken with those who are familiar with the case. It is my opinion that this trial represents one of the greatest travesties of justice imaginable. The greater concern is that Heather’s dilemma is not the root of the problem – it is merely a symptom of broader systemic patterns of civil injustice.

In nearby Poplar Bluff, MO, a 15-year old boy, Walter Currie Jr., was doused with gasoline and set on fire by his classmates, with the perpetrator allegedly yelling racial epithets as he did it. Heather’s case is just the tip of the iceberg when referring to the ultra-conservative Bootheel area, less than 100 miles away from the town where Rush Limbaugh was born.

Here are the 5 reasons why we will march on Kennett and why we are not going to stop:

1) A mind is a terrible thing to waste
Heather Ellis could be your child or my own. She wasn’t out in the streets stealing, killing or using drugs. She was in college planning to go to medical school. Who would think that one trip to Wal-Mart could destroy the future of a hard working, ethical, preacher’s daughter with no criminal record? Heather is not just the child of Pastor Nathaniel Ellis, she is a child of everyone.

2) This is part of a pattern of injustice
According to several of the town’s leaders, Kennett’s local TV stations mysteriously went to a blue screen when the family’s press conference was scheduled to appear on local television. Surrounding towns had good reception, and some suspect that someone may have conspired to shut down the airwaves to avoid giving the case local publicity. The prosecutor in the case, Stephen Sokoloff, has a reputation for slamming horrific sentences onto people of color in the community and has requested a change of venue to nearby Bloomfield, MO, which has less than 40 African Americans in the entire town. Only the United States Justice Department has the power to intervene in response to such legal bullying, which is why we are reaching out to Attorney General Eric Holder.

3) Fighting the Ku Klux Klan
The family has been threatened by the KKK and a major in the local police force personally delivered the threat to the family. This is not to say that any members of the local police force are affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan, but the family argues that the town is so small that everyone knows everyone. As a result, they’ve had a difficult time finding an attorney who is not somehow connected to Prosecutor Sokoloff.

4) The Jena 6 was not enough
For every six cases of injustice that we see, there are another 60,000 cases that we don’t see. The goal in this situation is not only to help the family of Heather Ellis, but to continue a prolonged strategy of developing legal and social infrastructure to support those who endure such tragedies on a regular basis. The legal system destroys as many black youth as the educational system, and it’s time for this trauma to end.

5) Black leadership starts in the mirror
While I applaud Rev. Al Sharpton’s support for this case, the truth is that he can’t do it all by himself. Emails flood in for people asking for help, but emails should also be flooding in from those offering to help. The model of activism for the 21st century should not involve turning to a select few African-American social superheroes. Instead we should be training ourselves and our children to be captains of our own destiny – mobilizing thousands of brave and conscientious citizens behind legitimate social causes.

A leader can be killed, but a movement can live forever – our dreams must always survive.