The girl in the bloody dress covered with dollars widened my view of the world — staggering into the afternoon, her arms spread wide, her mouth open in a silent wail. It was her birthday, and someone in her home had just been shot. I was a young reporter in Montgomery, Alabama, and I stood on the sidewalk, watching and wondering how this came to be.
I knew about poverty. Both of my parents grew up poor, and we were a working-class family. But this was more profound. The house, the lounging neighbors, the casual professionalism of the EMTs and the investigators all seemed to say, “Move along folks, there is nothing new here.” And they were right. It was a community where the schools had always been bad, jobs always scarce and crime always common. That girl’s face told me this was a place of true despair.
No doubt, minutes earlier she had smiled while relatives pinned money to her white dress in an old African-American custom. Then came a dispute, a quick trigger, and everything went to hell like so much else in that neighborhood day after day, week after week, year after year.
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I’ve covered news for nearly four decades, and I still don’t know who is at fault for these hopeless places: those who live there, those who don’t or some devil’s combination of the two? To say racism is entirely to blame seems unrealistic. To say race has nothing to do with it seems naive. All I know is that such spots exist, and despite all the good residents who struggle to make them better, in troubled corners some folks grow angry, resentful and violent.
And sometimes, in places like Baltimore, they blow up — raging against reason and against all the wrong in their lives and against everyone they think might have caused it. Yes, the unrest is about a man’s death. Yes, it’s about the police. But it is also about all the girls in ruined dresses, crying over lives less lived than you’d expect in a country that promises so much.
Tom Foreman is a CNN correspondent and author of the upcoming book “My Year of Running Dangerously: A dad, a daughter, and a ridiculous plan.”