There is a tragically poetic symmetry in the waves of national rebellion that the deaths of these two black men triggered over a half-century apart.
Martin Luther King was the most famous black man on the planet at the time of his assassination. King’s death roiled the nation, sparking widespread protests, demonstrations and marches in 125 cities. Violence and political rebellion contoured these events, which reached the nation’s capital and worried White House officials enough to post thousands of military troops outside the official residence of the president, just in case.
President Trump has taken efforts to ensure his political and physical survival during a period of racial civil unrest to unseemly new lows: bragging on Twitter that the Secret Service was prepared to sic “vicious dogs” on protesters outside the White House and threatening to deploy active duty military personal to squelch rebellion in Washington, D.C., and around the country. Trump also turned a campaign promise to build a wall between Mexico and the United States into an epic example of karmic payback by erecting a new barrier to protect the White House from racial justice demonstrators.
The increasingly bleak racial and economic conditions King marched, protested and organized against in his era have flourished in our own time. The contemporary breadth and depth of institutional racism are no accident. Black lives continue to be devalued through the thousands of policy and political choices that have been made between King’s assassination and Floyd’s death.
The aspirational historic moment that led to President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society asked the nation enormously important questions about the value of black life in America. Programs to offer early-childhood education, clean drinking water, child care, after-school care and nutritious food showcased the way in which policy could be guided by racial justice and compassion. Efforts to allow poor black Americans to design the keys to their own freedom through the Community Action Program stalled after a short time, felled by bipartisan protests from elected officials, bureaucrats and others who believed in top-down solutions that would allow mayors and elected officials to dole out anti-poverty funds to their local political machines.
The flames that engulfed large portions of America during the 1960s helped to extinguish the promise of the Great Society by turning the War on Poverty into a dehumanizing war against poor black communities. America has, in the ensuing five decades, deployed state of the art technology to criminalize, surveil, arrest, incarcerate, segregate and punish black communities. Floyd’s death represents the culmination of these political and policy decisions to choose punishment over empathy, to fund prisons over education and housing and to promote fear of black bodies over racial justice.
America proved stubbornly resistant to King’s dream of a “beloved community” free of racial segregation, economic injustice and violence. Watershed legislation passed during the civil rights era proved more limited in social impact than when originally conceived. Dreams of racial integration spurred by the court-ordered desegregation of public schools in the 1970s have died a slow, agonizing painful death. Instead, court decisions since the 1980s have interpreted even voluntary efforts at racial integration as reverse discrimination or the denial of parents’ rights to choose where to send their children to school. Voting rights, perhaps the civil rights movement’s signal achievement, received almost fatal wounds as a result of a 2013 Supreme Court decision that eliminated a requirement that states with a history of voter discrimination and suppression to seek approval from the Justice Department before passing rules that could negatively affect black and other historically marginalize voters.
Massive national disruption for racial justice in honor of Floyd, a black man who was not famous, rich, nor well connected, represents a kind of progress for the nation. Not the progress we proclaim during annual MLK celebrations, the practiced racial tolerance and co-optation that is on public display during Black History Month, or the unearned congratulations and pats on the back in the aftermath of the Obama presidency.
The Floyd protests are evidence of a racial progress in national understanding of the depth and breadth of white supremacy and institutional racism. Americans of all colors and backgrounds have taken to the street in demonstrations that reflect an understanding that black life is inextricably connected their own. This movement recognizes the long journey ahead to achieving genuine racial justice in this country. Outside of the bubble of black success, talent and genius that we see scattered across America, institutional racism and white supremacy have flourished rather than diminished.
There is also significant progress in the fact that an ordinary black man’s public execution has sparked so many white Americans to join in demanding racial justice. George Floyd serves as a literal and figurative embodiment of the thousands of black men who have been killed by law enforcement over the course of American history who are destined to remain in anonymity.
The thousands of white people who have taken to the streets alongside black demonstrators — and Latinx, Asian, indigenous peoples — reflect a small sample of even larger numbers of ordinary citizens, politicians, activists, faith leaders, entrepreneurs, athletes and businesses that have issued statements of support and solidarity for racial justice in the wake of Floyd’s death.
Fifty-two years after King’s assassination we have arrived at another crossroads in the country’s long troubled racial history. Collectively, we can make a different choice than the 1968 Generation, which chose fear over love, President Richard Nixon’s law-and-order “silent majority” over King’s “beloved community” and racial segregation over openness and inclusion.
Black Americans, having already suffered the premature death, unemployment, and indignity triggered by the covid-19 pandemic, received another unconscionable measure of grief with the tragedy of Floyd’s death on video. Yet, this generation of black women and men continue to shine incandescent light demanding justice and equality in ways that have inspired millions of people around the world.
The racial justice demonstrations inspired by Floyd’s death offer this nation a generational opportunity to correct past mistakes while creating a future that is not only anti-racist, but dedicated to the promotion of racial justice. We can build the “beloved community” in our lifetime, but only by acknowledging the depth and breadth of our contemporary racial conflicts, the legacies of our troubled history and the blood of famous and more obscure martyrs who have galvanized Americans to make black citizenship and dignity the beating heart of this nation.