Shortly after services had ended, Cierra Maggitt’s cousin was standing in a church parking lot on the South Side of Chicago when gang members mistook him for a rival and gunned him down last year.
On Thursday, with Rev. Jesse Jackson encouraging Maggitt and her classmates at Proviso East High School to rebel against gun violence, she stood to identify herself as another Chicago area teenager who’s had an all too common experience.
“I think for the most part, a good majority of us in this room have experienced a friend or family member that was killed,” Maggitt said following Jackson’s appearance at the school.
Before an auditorium packed with graduating seniors and upperclassmen, Jackson implored the students not to succumb to destructive influences in their lives and apply themselves to greatness. Gun violence, drugs, academic failure and disrespectful behavior toward women can all be stopped, Jackson said, if victims refuse to be victimized.
Proviso Township High School District graduated 1,000 seniors on May 20, just three days after Jackson spent several hours at the East campus in Maywood. His message of personal responsibility was delivered enthusiastically and the teens called back to him, repeating mantras of self respect and dignity.
“I am somebody,” Jackson shouted from the stage with students following suit. “Respect me, protect me; never neglect me. Red and yellow, brown, black and white, we are all princes in God’s sight.”
Twice in his remarks, Jackson invoked the name of Blair Holt, a teenager from Chicago’s South Side shot to death earlier this month while riding a city bus on 103rd Street. City police have said they believe Holt was not the intended target in what was a gang-related shooting.
Still grieving the death of her cousin, Maggitt said Jackson’s words carried a familiar theme.
“It’s not easy getting over a family death like that,” Maggitt said. “It was unnecessary.”
To emphasize the problems of violence and drugs in the suburbs, Jackson asked those students who know of a peer who has been jailed on drug charges to stand, bringing nearly everyone in the room to their feet. Roughly a dozen students acknowledged they knew of a classmate who has carried a gun to school. Dozens more stood up when asked if suicide had been discussed with friends.
Jackson is the founder and president of the RainbowPUSH Coalition, a Chicago-based group focused on civil rights, peace and economic justice efforts in America. He marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s and sought the Democratic nomination for U.S. president in 1984 and 1988.
According to a District 91 spokesperson, Jackson’s visit to Proviso East, which lasted more than two hours, was coordinated in commemoration of the May 17, 1954, Supreme Court ruling that desegregated public schools in America. Following his remarks, members of Jackson’s staff conducted a voter registration drive at the school.
Senior Katrina Mallory, one of those who registered to vote through the RainbowPUSH Coalition, said the reverend’s comments were thought provoking.
“It was powerful,” Mallory said. “All of the guns and the drugs need to stop.”
It is incumbent upon members of a community to alert one another to dangerous situations, Jackson said. Students at the largely black school agreed they would tell others if a Ku Klux Klan member was in their community, but Jackson got nervous laughter from his audience when he said that drug dealers and violent criminals are no less harmful.
“Exposing danger is a moral responsibility,” Jackson said.
Martez McGregor, another junior in the audience, said the emphasis on options carried the most weight for him. Many of his classmates, McGregor said, see too few choices in life and only limit themselves further by making poor decisions.
“I think it was insightful,” McGregor said. “It was a word that we really need. We need more positive speakers like this more often.”