Today marks the 53rd anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination at the hands of James Earl Ray. At a time when the nation is watching the trial of Derek Chauvin, the former police officer charged with the murder of George Floyd, King’s legacy is as relevant and potent as ever.
Although more than 50 years apart, the deaths of King and Floyd sparked public outrage that resulted in nation-wide protests, rioting, and mourning. It is no secret that, for many aspects, Black America still battles the same issues as it did during the Civil Rights Movement. Yet, there is chilling irony in the fact that the anniversary of King’s murder falls during a time when his values are being re-iterated, praised, and debated now more than ever before.
On April 4, 1968, King stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee when James Earl Ray’s bullet pierced him in the neck. At age 39, King had revolutionized what it meant to be Black in America, having earned the Nobel Peace Prize four years before his death and inspiring millions across America to question Jim Crow’s societal norms.
As the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), King and his team were in Memphis that spring supporting a sanitation worker’s strike, a visit that had been part of a larger plan to march to Washington D.C.for the underprivileged. The effort came to a screeching halt, causing racial tensions to explode yet again in the ensuing riots. Then, like today, King’s message of peaceful protest and equality rang out above the chaos.
Fast forward 52 years later to May 2020. America had not learned from King’s work, sacrifice, and ultimate assassination. The Black Lives Matter movement had been boiling beneath the surface since 2013 when George Zimmerman was acquitted in the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. In the following years, more Black Americans would die at the hands of police brutality, such as Eric Garner (1970-2014), Breonna Taylor (1993-2020), Alton Sterling (1979-2016), Tamir Rice (2002-2014), and many others.
On May 25, all of the grief and rage from losing so many Black lives amplified. The world watched in horror as George Floyd could be heard chanting, “I can’t breathe” over and over. For the following three months, millions of people protested systemic racism, their voices echoing through the streets: “silence is violence”, “I can’t breathe”, “no justice, no peace”. The slogans of the Black Lives Matter movement echoed King’s Letter from a Birmingham jail quote, “justice delayed is justice denied.” Once again, King’s legacy illuminated society after a Black man’s death.
Both the death of Martin Luther King and George Floyd sparked mass protests, but that is not where the eerie similarities end. Both BLM and the Civil Rights Movement were driven by the youth. Both were born out of the gut-wrenching violence against Black Americans, particularly by the police.
As someone born in 2000, decades after the end of the Civil Rights Movement, the emotion behind this movement was only something I read in textbooks. It was foreign to me because of two reasons. Firstly, I didn’t live through it like some of my older relatives and secondly, I am not a person of color. I am, however, old enough to recognize history repeating itself. In the context of Black America in the 21st century, and not even considering the countless tragedies during Jim Crow, Floyd’s murder is part of a dark cycle that took the lives of Tamir Rice and Eric Garner early on in the BLM movement. So it’s no longer difficult to capture the rage of a similar revolution, even if it was more than 50 years ago.
Today, we are four days into Derek Chauvin’s trial. He is charged with second and third-degree murder, as well as second-degree manslaughter. If convicted, Chauvin faces up to 40 years behind bars.
It’s crucial to acknowledge the tragedies endured by Black America throughout the decades and to know that change comes with remembering our history so that it stops repeating itself. As we watch the trial of Derek Chauvin unfold, the impending verdict hovers over a scarred America, especially today.