50 years later: What have we learned from the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr?

50 years later: What have we learned from the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr?
The Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial in Washington, DC. Photo: M DOGAN /

“There can be no justice without peace, and there can be no peace without justice.”

Peace activist and civil rights leader, Dr. King chanted this statement outside a California prison, which was holding Vietnam War protesters on December 14, 1967. In his commitment and passion for justice, and in his inimical and profound way, he understood several connecting strands: “I see these two struggles as one struggle.”

By fighting a war “against the self-determination of the Vietnamese people,” he realized that his country, the United States of America, had been proliferating injustice. While fighting for the civil and human rights of people in his home nation without opposing what King believed to be the clear exploitation of the Vietnamese people would have contradicted his declaration that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Throughout his life, he invoked his vibrant image of the “inescapable network of mutuality” that links all of humanity.

Dr. King is one of literally countless social justice warriors, known and un-recognized throughout the ages across our remarkable planet. They have placed their values and lives on the line to ensure a better, more peaceful world highlighted by a more level playing field between people of every identity and background. One where a safety net catches people who have hit tough times and people with limited abilities to meet their needs.

Because of their courageous dedication to the concept of fairness and justice in the relationship between the individual and the state and between states, in their devotion to obliterating the barriers of social mobility by working actively for equality of opportunity and economic justice, they have given us so much. But as we know, the struggle for social justice is ongoing, for the journey must continue before we collectively reach our ultimate destination.

As we commemorate and celebrate the life and legacy of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the 50th anniversary of his tragic murder this week, I am reminded once again of his vibrant image of the “inescapable network of mutuality” that links humanity. Dr. King envisioned an inclusive model of social justice because he believed that “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”

Though society has traveled forward on a path toward King’s goal of peace with justice, deep potholes continually inhibit our progress.

Recently we witnessed the fatal police shooting of an unarmed young black man, Stephon Clark, in his grandmother’s backyard in Sacramento. Police officers shot 20 bullets in his direction, with eight hitting their target – all but one entering his body from behind.

Clark’s death adds to a growing list of police shooting of black and brown men and women overtaking the country. For example, we saw the brutal police chokehold death of Eric Garner, the multiple-bullet police killings of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Alton Sterling, and many others.

Though the U.S. Congress passed on January 31, 1865 and the President signed into law on December 6, 1865 the 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution abolishing slavery, black and brown lives continue not to matter relative to white lives through Reconstruction, the Jim Crow South, into the 20th century CE, and beyond as we have clearly observed in the current spate of murders of black and brown people by police officers.

Black people in the United States coined in the 1960s the battle cries “Black is Beautiful” and “Black Power” as counter narratives in a nation that viewed skin with greater amounts of melanin as ugly and where white people fought ruthlessly to preserve supremacy over all people of color.

Recently black people coined the rallying cry and organization “Black Lives Matter” in a country where historically black lives haven’t mattered much relative to white lives.

The concept of “Social Reproduction” (originally proposed by Karl Marx in 1867) asserts that social institutions, including schools, reproduce social inequalities, especially in terms of socioeconomic class and race, which exist in the larger society.

For example, the prison industrial complex within the United States (the country with the highest rate of 716 inmates per 100,000 of the population) disproportionately incarcerates – and for longer terms – people of color over white people for similar crimes. (Black people are 13% of the overall population, but represent 40% of the prison population). Though the U.S. represents 4.4% of the world’s population, it houses 22% of the world prison inmates.

While most police officers enter law enforcement with completely good intentions to serve and assist the public and to support their own families, they bring with them their past socialization sometimes aided and abetted by members of their departments.

Tough often subtle, the process by which systemic racism reproduces itself into law enforcement and other social institutions can also at times express itself quite blatantly.

Researchers Charles and Massey interviewed 3,924 undergraduate students at 28 selective colleges and universities on their perceptions of various racial and ethnic groups. Results indicated that “…black people are rated most negatively on traits that are consistent with American racial ideology. White, Latino, and Asian students are all likely to perceive blacks as violence-prone and poor. They also rate black people more negatively than themselves in traits like lazy, unintelligent, and preferring welfare dependence.”

These students represent the very types of people who eventually enter police training academies and take their place patrolling the streets. These are the very types of people who eventually enter the classroom and instruct our children. These are the very types of people who eventually enter politics. These are our future and current leaders.

Other researchers, Artiles, Harry, Reschly, and Chinn contend that “bias is more than the personal decisions and acts of individuals. Rather, bias against minorities should also be thought of in terms of historical residua that are layered in social structures and that may lead to various forms of institutional discrimination.”

So, where did they (we) learn these attitudes that they (we) are reproducing? They most certainly did not invent or create these negative belief systems.

Rather, we all are born into a society that teaches us these biases. These systemic inequities are pervasive throughout the society. They are encoded into the individual’s consciousness and woven into the fabric of our social institutions, resulting in a stratified social order privileging dominant groups while restricting and disempowering marginalized groups.

Racism (and all other forms of oppression) remains the problem: the systematic and hierarchical ideology of white superiority and white privilege. We must look into the mirror at ourselves as well. Especially for white people, we must come to consciousness of our social conditioning and the ways we have internalized notions of “race.”

With the increased visibility of specific police officers killing unarmed black and brown people, the wide-scale demonstrations of outrage and protest traveling throughout the country, and past investigations by the Justice Department into allegations of racial bias in policing, some law enforcement agencies are assessing procedures while attempting to improve relations with the communities in which they are meant serve.

The Dallas Police Department, for example, for many years has undertaken steps to improve its community relations with remarkable results.

Allegations of racism in the hiring practices, policies, and attitudes in police departments, however, represent in microcosm much larger forces evident in our country. We must not and cannot dismiss police killings of black and brown people as simply the actions of a few individuals or “bad cops,” for oppression exists on multiple levels in multiple forms.

These officers live in a society that subtly and not-so-subtly promotes intolerance, imposes stigma, and perpetuates violence. The incidents must be seen as symptoms of larger systemic national problems.

By our challenging social institutions such as law enforcement agencies, we are taking a necessary step in reducing and one day eliminating cultural bias to ensure that these institutions work for everyone regardless of race and other social identities. But this is surely not enough.

I learned about the tragic death of Dr. King on that early spring evening in 1968 when I was a 20-year-old junior at San José State University. Before and ever since, I have been continually inspired by his words and his deeds.

Senator Robert F. Kennedy, who was assassinated just two months later, spoke about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in Cleveland, Ohio one day after he was killed. In that speech, Kennedy placed gun violence into a larger perspective:

For there is another kind of violence, slower but just as deadly, destructive as the shot or the bomb in the night. This is the violence of institutions; indifference and inaction and slow decay. This is the violence that afflicts the poor, that poisons relations between men because their skin has different colors. This is a slow destruction of a child by hunger, and schools without books, and homes without heat in the winter.”

At this crossroads in our collective national consciousness, we have an opportunity to address the legacy of racism and poverty, the divides on which this country was founded.

If we do not, we will never move forward out from the abyss of our past to a better future. If we do not, we will continue to remain on the endangered nations list.

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