Dr. Charles McKinney is an associate professor of history, teaching selected topics in Africana at Rhodes College. He enjoys the renown of a widely-sought speaker and a published author.
But in 2014, the scholar was a grieved father.
An 18-year-old Michael Brown had been killed by a police officer in Ferguson, MO, while reportedly surrendering with his hands raised in the air. Demonstrations and violent acts of protest reverberated across the nation.
McKinney’s heart was heavy. So he did what any other good, African-American father would do. He took his sons down to the Mapco store at the corner of Jackson Ave. and Evergreen St., where some protesters had gathered in their neighborhood. It was important for his sons to see him “standing as a black man against this killing.
“I just remember explaining to my boys and the other young people who were listening that no police officer has the right or the authority to be judge, jury and executioner,” McKinney said.”
Only days ago, McKinney’s 19-year-old son, Ayodele McKinney, felt “the power of marching on the street” to protest the May 25 killing of 46-year-old George Floyd at the hands of a Minnesota police offer, who now faces a string of charges and has been fired from the force.
“I told my father I wanted to experience a wider, more organized, protest,” said Ayodele. “And I wanted to support everyone in the march screaming ‘Black Lives Matter.’ It was necessary for me to go. I felt compelled to go.”
McKinney poured into his children from the onset a sense of pride about their race and their legacy.
“My name means ‘Joy has come into the house,’” said Ayodele. “My brother is Chioke (Chee-o-kay). His name means ‘God’s gift.’ “The names come from the Yoruba, a language spoken in Nigeria.”
Like every conscientious father of African-American sons, McKinney had “the talk” – If you’re ever stopped by police, do everything you are told to do, and be polite; answer “yes, sir” and “no, sir.”
“I would have been derelict in my duty as a father if I had not given the talk,” McKinney said. “But it is still tiring and frustrating, draining and enraging.”
He laments that elder son Ayodele can chart his life by police murders of Black people over the last seven or eight years.”
“My older son knows what was going on in his life by the names of people who have died in police custody,” said McKinney. “He can say, ‘When Trayvon Martin died, I was 12 years old. When Walter Scott died, I felt this way. When Sandra Bland died…When Michael Brown died…’ He can tell his age by each death like you can tell the age of a tree by its rings.”
When Ayodele returned from the march, he told his father that anger must be transformed into action. The teen attends Xavier University in New Orleans.
Although history keeps repeating itself, McKinney said he is a realist and not a pessimist. Four hundred years of racism and oppression are not going to disappear overnight.
“I told all three of my children – I have a 30-year-old daughter – as you grow older, you will enter debates and you will have conversations about the struggle for freedom,” McKinney said.
“There will be many battlefronts upon which to fight. I hope you will engage, like Dr. King said, in the ‘long and bitter, but beautiful struggle.’”