Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is a common racial statistic: He was an unarmed Black man who was shot to death.
Fifty years after King’s assassination in Memphis, Tennessee, Black Americans are still grappling with gun violence and a troubling pattern of white police officers gunning down unarmed Black men on the streets of America.
It happened again in Sacramento, California last month. Police fired 20 shots at Stephon Clark in the backyard of his home. Clark, 22, was shot eight times – seven bullets struck him in the back, according to an independent autopsy. Clark was carrying a cell phone that police thought may have been a gun.
King wasn’t shot by police, but he was killed by a fanatical white man who wanted to silence King’s voice. The end result was the same –a peaceful Black man who was not carrying a weapon but was shot and killed unnecessarily. The message over decades is deeply disturbing: For some, Black lives don’t matter, and the lives of Black males, particularly, are expendable.
Rev. Jesse Jackson appeared on CNN this week and, from Memphis, he revisited the day King was shot.
“And then we hear, ‘Pow!’” Jackson said. “The bullet hit him in the throat. He had been shot in the neck. It was a tremendous moment. I heard some voice say, “Get low!” We dashed to the steps…. The police were coming toward us with drawn guns and we said, the bullet came from that way, that’s where the bullet came from.”
King led a non-violent movement for social change during the Civil Rights Era and today King’s legacy lives on through demonstrations like in Sacramento where last week protestors demanded justice for Clark. More demonstrations are being planned in the weeks ahead.
In King’s famous “Letter From Birmingham Jail” in 1963, his revelations are timeless.
“When you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick, brutalize, and even kill your black brothers and sisters with impunity; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society.”
The letter could have been written yesterday.
King was only 39 years old when he was assassinated. His name can be added to the top of a long list of unarmed black men in America who met similar fates – a tally that includes Trayvon Martin; Philando Castle; Walter Scott; Tamir Rice; Michael Brown; Danny Ray Thomas and Amadou Diallo, who was shot 19 times by four New York City police officers, in a case of mistaken identity.
King wanted Blacks and whites to live harmoniously in America even while police unleashed their attack dogs on innocent Black folks in the 1960s. It was a noble mission. And while there has been significant progress over the years with regard to race, King’s dream is far from being realized.
In fact, according to a new CBS News poll, most Americans feel there is still work to be done when it comes to achieving King’s goals or racial accord.
Here’s what the poll found: Just 36 percent of Americans think all or most of the goals have been achieved. Black Americans, the survey said, are more skeptical than whites. While 59 percent of white Americans think just some or almost none of Dr. King’s goals have been achieved, 71 percent among Black Americans feel the same way.
“Nothing seems to change,” Curtis Gordon, Stephon Clark’s uncle, told The Los Angeles Times. “This situation seems to happen quite often, that someone who looks like me isn’t going to go home. You really can’t internalize that unless you live it.”
According to a Washington Post data base, the number of unarmed Black men shot by police is dropping — but not fast enough. In 2017, according to the Post, 19 unarmed Black men were shot by police; in 2016, 17 unarmed Black men were shot; and 36 unarmed Black men were shot in 2015.
The critical question facing America today– not just Black America – is why white police officers are so quick on the trigger when confronting Black men? A friend asked me this week, “Why don’t police aim for the leg? Why do they have to kill them?” The majority of white cops who shoot unarmed Black men are never convicted and most rarely serve jail time.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” King wrote from the jail in Birmingham
King is still shaping our collective consciousness 50 years after his murder — another unarmed Black man struck down in the prime of his life by a deliberate bullet.
What do you think?
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