I'm sure no one in the family will forget that awful day when death snatched two boys who didn't get a chance to enjoy the fullness of life. I certainly won't. I'll always remember Elbert, whom we called "Lil Dude," and Michael, whom we called "Mike," for being playful, unruly and boisterous until the lake silenced them forever.
That day began like other lazy days before. I rose rather late, but jump-started my day in order to start and finish the tasks on my agenda. I didn't expect what would come later on that evening after getting a frantic phone call from my niece, Candace Johnson.
"You need to get over here, now," she wept hysterically.
"Okay, what's the problem?" I said, trying to ascertain what the problem was and whether she was indeed serious.
"They can't get Lil Dude and Michael out the lake."
At that point, I was confused.What was she talking about? Why couldn't they find Lil Dude and Michael? Why were they in the lake? I'd never heard the urgency in her voice before. So I asked, "What are you talking about when you say they can't find them?"
"They're at the bottom of the lake and the police and fire trucks are here. Just get over here," she demanded.
It then dawned on me that Candace was serious. I hung up my cell, jumped in the Camry, and sped from Bartlett to Russellwood within 15 minutes. I prayed on the way for God to intervene on their behalf and to wake me from the awful nightmare.
I parked the car on Windermere where Russellwood intersects. I couldn't get to the house by car because yellow crime scene tape prevented entry onto Russellwood, a dead-end street, where several bright red fire trucks were positioned and at least eight police cars were parked inside and outside the area.
It was a little after eight and a curious crowd had already gathered in and around Russellwood, along with several news trucks from various networks. It was a big story, the drowning of cousins. I'd spent several decades as a reporter/editor at a local newspaper and knew what to expect. So I didn't want to be bothered and told the family not to talk to the media. I didn't want information to be misconstrued.
I'd gotten a quick briefing from a couple of family members and right away assumed leadership. There was anarchy, disorder and confusion. My twin sisters, Dorothy and Doris, the mother of Elbert, had unleashed a floodgate of emotions. My niece, Anitra, the mother of Michael, paced back and forth in quiet grief, waiting for the rescue teams to find her son.
But then it occurred to me that I should check on my mother. She was crying profusely on the floor of her bedroom. Grief had engulfed her and refused to stop there. After I'd gotten my mother to her feet and into bed, I asked a nephew to console her so that I could return to the scene where hell was about to break loose.
The day had yielded to darkness, which inhibited the rescue teams' efforts to find Lil Dude and Mike. We knew the inevitability of death the longer it took to find them. But there was a glimmer of hope that they could be resuscitated and their lives restored, we thought.
The rescue teams brought in their boats for divers to scour the bottom of the lake. They were aided by a helicopter's powerful beam of light that pierced the darkness and another search light that firemen used on the upper rung of a hoisted ladder.
The paramedics were already in position, ready to receive the bodies. We waited impatiently for the boys' return, one way or the other. Still, no word. Nerves were frayed and emotions ran the gamut. The police tried to maintain order, but found it difficult to hold back my grief-stricken family.
I assisted the police officers in their efforts and succeeded where they'd failed. So it occurred to them that I would be the intercessor to help them maintain order and prevent my family from interfering with rescue efforts.
There were a couple of close calls. We were getting word that they'd found Lil' Dude and Mike, which precipitated a rush to the ambulances where the rescue teams were seen carrying something that couldn't be distinguished. It was dark and no one could get close.
An ambulance sped from the scene around 10 p.m., then another one a short time later. The family gave chase, including Lil' Dude's mother, who has one leg and was moving expeditiously on crutches. I chased her, Dorothy and others, but was unsuccessful in restoring order. It was complete mayhem.
The rescue teams had done their job under the cloak of darkness and disappeared into the night. The ambulances took the boys to Le Bonheur Children's Medical Center. Some of us, including Candace, loaded up in a car driven by my brother's ex-wife and rushed to the hospital in complete quietness. We weren't sure what we'd expect upon our arrival. But then it became crystal clear that we were there to see Lil' Dude and Mike, no matter their condition.
The boys were lying quietly on gurneys, from which hospital officials worked unsuccessfully to resuscitate them. But it was too late. They'd been at the bottom of Lake Windermere for more than two hours. Their bodies were cold and stiff and an extraction tube protruded from their nostrils. The water had robbed them of the precious oxygen to live.
A chaplain came in to minister to us, particularly the boys' parents -- my sister, Doris, and my niece, Anitra. He said Lil' Dude and Mike didn't suffer, that they didn't feel the sting of death. We listened intently and continued to spend the rest of the time saying goodbye.
When we come into this world, we come in as an empty vessel that needs to be filled with the essentials of life: food, water, and, just as important, the need to communicate. Although food and water are provided for us until we learn to provide for ourselves, we have to be taught from Day One how to communicate with one another and how to interpret and discern what we see, hear and read.
When we look at the world around us, we get a mental impression or a visual picture of life as we know it. But our interpretation of life can be greatly distorted if we fail to develop ways in which to communicate effectively. Through the prisms of our eyes we learn at an early age the shapes and sounds of alphabets, which are strung into words and phrases. Therefore, when our eyes are opened, we increase our ability to learn and comprehend the world around us, which equates to success.
Literacy can be achieved through hearing as well. Each one of us is aware of vowels and consonants and the various parts of speech, and how important it was in school for each of us to master. Our children, likewise, must achieve mastery if they're going to succeed in today's ever-changing world where the English language is spoken.
Reading is crucial. It is a powerful tool that unlocks the door to literacy and sheds a bright light on opportunities that may never be discovered if a person who fails to achieve reading proficiency remains ignorant. When President George W. Bush signed into law the No Child Left Behind Act, he raised the bar on reading proficiency and mandated that every child learn to read. The president said, "You teach a child to read, and he or her will be able to pass a literacy test." That's coming from our president who has trouble reading a teleprompter. But it was TV talk show host Oprah Winfrey who acknowledged the power of reading. She said, "Reading gave me hope. For me it was the open door."
Ghanaian diplomat Kofi Annan, the seventh secretary-general of the United Nation, also expressed his opinion on the subject of literacy. He said, "Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope. It is a tool for daily life in modern society.... Literacy is, finally, the road to human progress and the means through which every man, woman and child can realize his or her full potential."
The late John Sengestacke, who published the daily Chicago Defender, the weekly Michigan Chronicle, Pittsburgh Courier and the Tri-State Defender, realized the power of reading and the written word. An advocate for education, justice, integration and economic parity, Mr. Sengestacke opened the eyes of African-American people who depended on his newspapers for local, regional and national news about themselves, the world around them and the daily threat of living in a Jim Crow society. He printed news stories that were seldom, if ever, printed in the mainstream white media. In Mr. Sengestacke's newspapers, African Americans heeded the advice of opinionated columnists and learned of the "evil" system of government that prevented African Americans from getting a decent education, a fair wage and an equal footing in society.
Although the literacy rate for African Americans in the 1940s and '50s paled in comparison to today's literacy rate, the printed word was a powerful voice for a downtrodden people who often languished in utter despair in the Jim Crow South. Mr. Sengestacke, however, knew the gravity of the problem as well as anyone else and launched his newspapers to educate, motivate and galvanize the African-American community. With a mandate for change, the Tri-State Defender was launched in 1951 in Memphis to provide a needed voice for African Americans and an alternative to the white media.
If we go back to 1827, when the first African-American newspaper was started, we would discover that the Rev. Samuel E. Cornish and John B. Russwurm had the same idea that Mr. Sengestacke had when they co-founded the Freedom's Journal in New York. Frederick Douglass, abolitionist editor and orator, also had the same idea that Mr. Sengestacke had when he founded the North Star in Rochester, New York, in 1847. They sought to lift up African-American people who were suffering from the vicissitudes of life and the indignation heaped upon them by white racists who dug in their heels to stop anything and anybody who would help bring about racial equality. Although wanton violence was the norm, the primary goal for yesterday's African-American newspapers -- as it is now -- was to educate, motivate and be a beacon to African Americans whom the white media kept in darkness.
For 55 years, the Tri-State Defender has been a shining beacon in the Memphis community and continues to serve its readers locally and nationally from both black and white communities and others across cultural divides. The Tri-State Defender's platform hasn't changed since the first day Mr. Sengestacke went to press. That platform is: 1) racial prejudice worldwide must be destroyed; 2) racially unrestricted membership in all jobs, public and private; 3) equal employment opportunities on all jobs, public and private; 4) true representation in all U.S. police forces; 5) complete cessation of all school segregation; and 7) federal intervention to protect civil rights in all instances where civil rights compliance at the state level breaks down.
Now, where do we go from here as an African-American newspaper in a world where the news is flashed before us just as fast as it happens? And how does the younger generation benefit from reading the Tri-State Defender? The benefits are twofold: 1) The Tri-State Defender is a teaching tool for the younger generation who can learn of past and present African-American people, places and events that otherwise may not be printed in a positive light in the white media. The African-American community has complained too often about stories that are slanted, showing African Americans in an unfavorable light. In the Tri-State Defender, young African-American readers will see themselves in the stories of news-makers whom they may choose to emulate -- news-makers such as Maxine Smith, Dr. Benjamin L. Hooks, Dr. Carol Johnson, Cong. Harold Ford Jr., and countless others; and 2) The archives of the Tri-State Defender are steeped in history and provide the younger generation an invaluable history lesson that they otherwise wouldn't get from the white media. Historians, researchers, college students and those in high school glean from the pages of the newspaper all kinds of historical information that they use as reference material.
If the Tri-State Defender is used for its historical significance, young people will learn that the paper has always been black-owned and began publishing in 1951. They will learn that the newspaper provided full coverage of the civil rights movement as it was unfolding. They also will learn that the late L. Alex Wilson, the newspaper's gallant editor and general manager, often defied angry white mobs while covering mass demonstrations for justice in the tumultuous South. The younger generation will learn that the N-word wasn't first used by today's rappers, but by racists who donned white sheets and crisp suits. They also will learn that the Supreme Court declared segregation unconstitutional in public schools in 1954 and that Rosa Parks' refusal to surrender her bus seat to a white man was the spark that ignited the Montgomery bus boycott. If the young people were to peruse the archives of the Tri-State Defender, they will learn that "The Little Rock Nine," a group of determined black students, integrated Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., in 1957. They also will learn that President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964 to help usher in an era of equality. The younger generation also will learn that the Tri-State Defender reported the assassination of Malcolm X in 1965 and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 at the Lorraine Motel, now the home of the National Civil Rights Museum.
Although history was being made and continually written about in the Tri-State Defender, the younger generation can read about the exploits of today's history makers, such as the mayoral election of Memphis' first African-American mayor, Dr. Willie Herenton; and Shelby County's first African-American mayor, attorney A C Wharton. We report on the famous and infamous, the young and old, the positive and negative, the rich and poor, the upwardly mobile and downtrodden, marriages, deaths, accomplishments, scandals and other types of news stories that would fill a young person's empty vessel. That's why we are an important media outlet. The late John Sengestacke got it right when he published the daily Chicago Defender, the weekly Michigan Chronicle, Pittsburgh Courier and the Tri-State Defender. He knew the importance of communication and how it affects each one of us. And he knew, regardless of our literacy level, that we would be able to interpret and discern what we see, hear, and read in his four newspapers. The Tri-State Defender has been publishing for 55 years, and the presses are still rolling.