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June 30, 2006 - Rockford Register Star

Plight Of Blacks A 'Silent Cancer'

By Sadie Gurman

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ROCKFORD -- The statistic haunts Toni Thomas.

One in five black men will wind up in prison at some point in his life.

When Thomas looks in the eyes of her only son, 13-year-old Erick, she said she can't help but wonder whether that be his calling.

"That's a daily thought," Thomas said. "If you have a son, you have to worry about that."

The story gets worse. Only 45 percent of black men graduate from high school in the United States. Black men earn in their professions 67 percent of what white men make. Seven percent of black eighth-graders perform math at grade level. The chances of going to prison are highest among black males.

These numbers, compiled by the Black Star Project, became the crux of a town-hall meeting the organization held Thursday night to discuss solutions to a problem community members say has been left unaddressed for too long: the deepening plight of black men in America.

The two-hour-long discussion, led by panelists but fueled by concerned residents, was designed to help community members delve into the expanding problems black men face, from drug abuse and violence to the erosion of the family and the failure of the education system.

And though the list of hardships was long, Stuart Scott, who organized the meeting at Pilgrim Baptist Church, said that with time, awareness and discussion, the list of solutions will become even longer.

Change can start just by black people coming together for discussion, said Phillip Jackson, one of the meeting's three panelists and director of the Chicago-based Black Star Project, which seeks to help low-income and disenfranchised young minorities prosper in low-achieving schools and lead successful lives.

"We have a silent cancer in our community," said panelist Wayne Fricks, chaplain of the Reachout Jail Ministry in Rockford. "It's called division. When it comes to things like this, we're slow to show up."

The next step is getting involved, Fricks said. Involvement can happen politically or in local schools, but first and foremost, parents need to be heavily involved with their children while they gain a sense of self and before they act out, he said.

Too often, Fricks said, he'll counsel a teenager at the juvenile detention center and then visit the teen's father at the jail. It's a cycle that needs to be broken, he said.

Parents need to be a strong component in their children's education, too, as the area's school districts are not always representative, understanding or realistic about the issues that black teens face, said Kenneth Board, pastor at Pilgrim Baptist. And keep an open mind, he said.

"Let's be there for our families, and let's not speak to each other like we have all the answers," Board said.

Black people can rightly find fault in the school system and in many other social services, said Tommy Meeks, who attended the meeting and is the organizer of the local Juneteenth event.

But before any of those faults can be mended, he said, African-Americans need to do some introspection and welcome some philosophical changes, he said.

"I'm a firm believer in looking in the mirror at myself," Meeks said.

Staff writer Sadie Gurman can be reached at 815-987-1389 or

Toni Thomas is a November Coalition volunteer, visit her webprofile at:

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