Over a 43-year career in journalism, I have been blessed with some memorable experiences: I have covered presidential and vice presidential campaigns, I have flown on Air Force One, I have gone to parties at the White House, met Pope John Paul II, spent two weeks in Egypt, visited former slave dungeons in Dakar and Accra and have traveled around the world, including Rome, Paris, London, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Havana, Vienna and recently Beijing and Shanghai.
Of the thousands of stories I covered since I began my career in 1970 – primarily for Sports Illustrated, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Chicago Tribune, Emerge magazine and the NNPA News Service – one has affected me more than any other. It was the violent death of 23-year-old Mark Essex on Jan. 7,1973.
Essex, who was known as the New Orleans Sniper, killed nine innocent people, including five police officers, and wounded 13 others. I was sent to Emporia, Kan., to interview relatives and friends in an effort to learn what triggered Essex's outburst. What has stayed with me over the years is not the carnage he inflicted – though that's unforgettable – it's the events that led up to that point. Essentially, Essex felt that he had been harassed in the Navy, an account partly supported by friends, and he became so embittered that he was ready to die.
In fact, that's exactly what he wrote home to his parents shortly before his death. I interviewed Essex's mother and father after his bullet-riddled body was pulled from the roof of the Howard Johnson Hotel and sent back to Emporia for burial. Family members told me how a quiet, happy go lucky youth became embittered in the Navy. So bitter that he began hating all white people and was never the same again.
I suspect the reason the story has stuck with me for four decades is because I realized that had I not been able to handle the stifling racism while growing up in segregated Tuscaloosa, Ala. during the 1950s and 1960s, that could have been me. Because I had relatives and adults who coached me on how to deal with overt racism, I didn't go down that bloody path.
When I first heard about Christopher Dorner, the former Los Angeles cop who also went on a murder spree, I was reminded of Mark Essex. Like Essex, he complained of reporting racist acts to his supervisor and nothing was done about it. His manifesto, while rambling, gave clear details of his torment.
Dorner wrote about a white police officer using the n-word. Dorner said when he challenged the officer to not use the word in his presence, the officer replied, "I'll say it when I want." At that point, Dorner said he jumped over the passenger seat and began strangling the officer until they were separated by other cops.
Dorner also wrote about the blue line, the code of ethics that prevents cops from testifying against one another, even when that officer is wrong.
Interestingly, while in the midst of killing innocent people, both Essex and Dorner spared some lives. In his case, Dorner did not shoot the person whose vehicle he hijacked toward the end of the police chase. He also did not harm a couple that arrived at their mountain cabin only to find it to staked out by Dorner.
At the Howard Johnson hotel in New Orleans, a black maid said Essex told her, "Don't worry. We're not killing blacks today, just whites."
In the aftermath of the deaths of Mark Essex and Christopher Dorner, there is something we can take away from their lives.
One of our greatest challenges when dealing with young people, especially, is that we must teach them how to survive life's slings and arrows without going over the edge. It would be interesting if community-wide forums were organized for young people to listen to what their elders went through. Not just listen to them, but learn from them.
Alex Haley said his grandmother taught him to listen more than he spoke. She said if God had wanted us to talk more than listen, He would have given us two mouths and one ear.
Like you, I don't know exactly how we can prevent people from resorting to self-destructive deadly violence. But I know we must start somewhere in our community – whether it's school, church, home, community centers or a combination.
In an interview Sunday night with blog radio host Zandra Conway, we discussed various coping techniques. I told her that whenever I feel down, I always visualize life as a Ferris wheel. I try to hold on while I am at the bottom because sooner or later, I will glide back to the top.
How do you manage to cope during difficult times? Don't tell me, tell someone close to you. It just might save their life.
(George E. Curry is editor-in-chief of the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service (NNPA.) He can be reached via www.georgecurry.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/currygeorge.)