First Baptist Church of University Park sign stirs emotions after Zimmerman case

July 16, 2013 (UNIVERSITY PARK, Ill.)

"It is Safe to Kill BLACK PEOPLE in Amerikkka" read the digital message at First Baptist Church of University Park, on space usually reserved for a motivational quip or the title of Sunday's sermon.

"It is this feeling that has resonated through African American communities for years" said church pastor Rev. Reginald W. Williams, Jr. "But especially over the past weekend when the verdict came down in the case involving the murder of Trayvon Martin. It is this feeling, and recognition of this reality that informed the placement of the message on the marquis of First Baptist Church of University Park."

As passersby spotted the sign, the ABC7 I-Team began receiving copies of pictures and questions about the motivation for the public message. We contacted the church pastor for an explanation. Pastor Williams said that the sign's wording was slightly changed today into question form, but that the inspiration behind it remains the same. He says he was inspired by a similar action more than 60 years ago.

"In 1949 Rev. Vernon Johns, the pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery Alabama (and predecessor to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) put on the marquis in front of Dexter Avenue 'It is Safe to Kill Negroes In Montgomery'. He did this after a Black man was shot by a White man and received no punishment for the crime of murder. He placed this message on his marquis to call attention to what many Black people felt during that time—that in America the lives of Black people are treated with short worth by the dominant culture, systems, and institutions. It is interesting, yet unfortunate, that 64 years later, many Black people feel the exact same—In America, the lives of Black people are treated with short worth by the dominant culture, systems, and institutions. In no uncertain terms, Black life is undervalued in our society!"

On the sign as first posted and flashed for several days, the misspelling of America- as Amerikkka- was done intentionally according to the church leader, a Chicago native who has been pastor since 2008. "Just as in the 'glory days' of the KKK, it appears far too often that the murder of African Americans is permitted, and the mistreatment of African Americans historically and currently is far too cavalierly considered" Pastor Williams said.

"Add to this the fact that an unarmed teenager in Sanford, FL can be murdered in cold blood for simply walking home, and you will know the deep sense of concern that African Americans live with daily. Upon hearing the verdict, my own daughter of 7 years old now fears that she can be killed simply for being Black" he said. There has been sharp criticism of the church since the sign was first posted according to Rev. Williams. First Baptist held a town meeting on Monday night concerning the verdict and the sentiments on the flashing message board.

"While we were meeting, the trustees of University Park were meeting about the best ways to protect our children and our community given the new concealed carry laws in Illinois. In these two meetings, energy was given into finding solutions and not perpetuating divisions" he said.

After the meeting the sign was tweaked and is now posed as a question: "Is it safe to Kill Black People in America?"

Regardless, the intent is the same according to Pastor Williams. "The message on the sign is not a message of hate. It is a message of awakening and call to action. It is a message not intended to divide, but to cause honest reflection in order to make this country a better place for ALL "the Rev. Williams stated.

"The intent is to cause ALL people to look inside themselves and honestly ask that question. For many African Americans, the answer will come back yes, because, in spite of from whence we have come, this is STILL a country that marginalizes many and outcasts others! It is a country that has yet to have an honest dialogue about the reality of race in America."

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