WASHINGTON, D.C. — Since last month’s shooting massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, the most visible young activists given a megaphone to speak out against gun violence have been white.
But during a poignant moment at Saturday’s March For Our Lives protest, survivor Jaclyn Corin — who is white, and a junior at the school — concluded her speech by bringing out a special guest: Yolanda King, the nine-year-old African-American granddaughter of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
That’s when it became unmistakably clear: This movement means to be inclusive.
The March For Our Lives in Washington was attended by hundreds of thousands of protesters, and more than two dozen speakers described personal and sometimes harrowing encounters with gun violence. Over the course of the daylong march and rally, the Parkland survivors stood up and spoke out against senseless gun violence.
But they also gracefully stepped aside for marginalized communities whose stories of gun violence too often have been ignored, creating an environment that was inclusive, supportive, and which ultimately strengthens their movement.
Some speakers at the event were survivors of mass shootings, including several from communities where pervasive gun violence has terrorized generations of residents. They included a 17-year-old girl from Chicago named Mya Middleton, who recounted being confronted with a gun in a grocery store. Edna Chavez, also 17, from Los Angeles’ Latinx community, said she learned to “duck from bullets before learning how to read.”
People of color, especially from Black communities, were also a sizable presence among the crowd. Francisco Louis-White, for instance, led a small group of Black LGBTQ youth from the Washington-based organization SMYAL — Supporting and Mentoring Youth Advocates and Leaders.
“I wanted to expose them to a youth-led movement, and [hoped] that it would inspire them locally to stand up for what they believe,” said Louis-White, who works as a program coordinator for SMYAL. His group which joined forces during the protest with another organization GLSEN, which also champions the rights of LGBTQ students.
“We have a focus on empowering young people,” said SMYAL’s peer educator Brandan Persaud. “LGBTQ youth experience trauma and bullying at a higher rate than their heterosexual counterparts, especially of color. So it’s important to see this (movement) on a national stage and to have it take place so close home.”
The Washington Post found that while Black students make up 16 percent of the school aged population, they experience school violence at twice the rate.
Anti-gun activists also note that shootings like the one in Parkland affect affluent white youth relatively rarely, while children of color fall victim to gun violence nearly every hour of their lives.
On average, Black children are four times more likely to be killed by gunfire and black men are 13 times more likely, according to the group Everytown For Gun Safety. And Black women are more likely to die by homicide than any other demographic, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
That may explain the rousing ovation given to 11-year-old Naomi Wadler, who wowed the crowd with a speech about the many Black girls and women whose death by firearms rarely make headlines. She was poised, she was inspirational — and she was right.
David Hogg, one of the most visible survivors from the Parkland shooting, was asked at a pre-protest event sponsored by Axios last week how the media has faltered in its coverage of the tragedy, and his answer was unequivocal.
“Not giving black students a voice,” Hogg responded, according to Axios. “My school is about 25 percent black, but the way we’re covered doesn’t reflect that,” he said.
Despite the sometimes skewed media depictions, the crowd during the rally had many different groups of black and brown people, including group of young Black girls in bright orange t-shirts who had traveled all the way from Atlanta, Georgia. Baltimore’s Mayor, Catherine Pugh, sponsored 60 buses full of students from Charm City to attend the march.
“I’m here because I believe in standing up for what you believe in,” said Savannah Dukes, a student at New York University.
Reached by phone after the march, Louis-White said the day had had a huge impact one teens in their group.“They responded really well when they saw youth that looked like them. I thought that was really powerful,” Louis-White said.
Louis-White said the youths appeared to be most moved by one speaker, Zion Kelly, 17, who recounted the tragic shooting death of his twin brother, Zaire last year by a gunman near his home in Washington.
Jennifer Hudson closed out the rally and she couldn’t have been a more relevant pick. Her relationship to gun violence is an extremely dark and tragic story in which her brother, mother, and young nephew were all murdered at the hands of her sister’s ex-husband in 2008. It was a story both of domestic abuse and deadly gun violence.
Hudson, as she did shortly after those murders, stood strong on Saturday and belted out a song begging for the very thing that everyone there — no matter their relationship to gun violence — deeply wanted: Change.
Her song was yet another reminder that gun violence doesn’t just look like one thing: It’s widespread and nuanced. The numbers don’t lie, and they point time and time again to the fact that the Black community suffers the most. This message wasn’t lost on the organizers throughout the March For Our Lives, and was fully felt as the event came to an end.