Twenty years ago, on a warm evening in May 1992, a group of hoodlums violently assaulted rival gang members attending a funeral at the Morning Star Baptist Church in Mattapan. Beyond the horror, shock, and disbelief that the incident caused, it was also a wakeup call for the city, the black community, and eventually the nation. But the story has not been properly understood.
It is a story of collaboration, transformation, and racial reconciliation. And it is, contrary to some accounts about the “Boston Miracle,” a narrative that has its spiritual and intellectual origins in the organizing traditions of Martin Luther King Jr., the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, and the best of the self-help organizing models of the Nation of Islam. Understanding the larger meaning of the Morning Star assault and the role that Boston would play as an enlightened model of deracialized law enforcement requires taking a broader view of the context of the incident.
The violent act itself was a statement about the irrelevance of the leadership of the black community. For those who had boots on the ground at the time, the incident came as no surprise. As I observed that year in an essay on the specter of nihilism in inner cities across America: “As entry into labor market is increasingly dependent on education and high skills, we will see a generation of economically obsolete [black] Americans… a new jack generation, ill-equipped to secure gainful employment even as productive slaves.”
The Morning Star incident was ultimately an expression of the nihilism and decay of a politically orphaned underclass of youths who had been largely ignored. In this spectacular assault their pain and alienation was heard.
The event also redefined black politics, post-civil rights. Faith-based activists emerged in response to the growing black-on-black violence, introducing new conceptual and practical frameworks for addressing the problem. Morning Star was a turning point for the city and eventually the country. Building on the foundation of anti-violence work by Reverend Bruce H. Wall, the late Georgette Watson and Minister Don Muhammad, the leadership of the city came together as it had never done in recent memory. This was important, given the racial tensions between the black community and law enforcement agencies, which had been further damaged by the hostile racialized response of the Boston Police to the Charles Stuart case. Under the leadership of Mayor Tom Menino, Bishop John Borders of Morning Star and others, Boston contributed to revolutionizing our thinking on questions of race and law enforcement.
But now the faith-based community needs to be re-engaged. Church leaders are best equipped to service at-risk youths, because they are in these neighborhoods long after the staff of community-based organizations have gone home.
In addition, federal, state, and municipal criminal justice agencies must renew their efforts to work with the black community on an agenda that is more prevention-oriented. The collaboration between faith-based organizations and the criminal justice system was a critical element of Boston’s earlier success in stemming crime and violence among our youth. By developing new initiatives with the black community, the criminal justice agencies can intercept children who are prone to violence and ultimately to crime. This requires new ideas.
The Morning Star incident represented a cultural shift to a world in which respect for a house of worship means nothing to young men; in this new world, violence is growing among younger and younger children. When an 11-year-old child stabs a 6-year-old child on a school bus, targeting interventions to 14-year-olds obviously has limited impact, and reflects a clear incomprehension of the magnitude of the problem.
This means that programs that service young children must be put in place. One strategy is to mentor the children of the incarcerated, since 7 out of 10 of these children end up incarcerated themselves unless there is some significant intervention to redirect them. We know that to effectively reduce violence, more effort must be put into derailing the gang formation process.
The Morning Star incident stands as a symbol of significant change in the city: a cultural shift toward violence among our youth which was met with collaboration, racial reconciliation and effective programing. On the 20th anniversary of the event, the faith-based community and criminal justice agencies must renew collaborative efforts to reach younger children and to intervene before they become engaged in crime and violence.
Eugene F. Rivers 3d is director of the Ella Baker House and was cofounder of the Boston TenPoint Coalition.