When Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. [MLK] gave his “I Have a Dream Speech” in August 1963, he asked the “devotees of civil rights” a simple rhetorical question: “When will you be satisfied?”
One of his answers was particularly poignant. “We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.” He empathized with those who have been “battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality.”
Dr. King was deeply concerned about the plague of police brutality gratuitously visited upon black men throughout the country. He had seen and experienced police brutality firsthand. In the Spring of 1963, he witnessed Eugene “Bull” Connor, the rabidly racist police commissioner of Birmingham, Alabama, “Cry ‘Havoc!’, and let slip the dogs of war” on unarmed citizens demanding the right to vote. Connors unleashed his police officers to viciously and mercilessly attack non-violent anti-segregation protesters with high-pressure fire hoses, police dogs, billy clubs and tear gas. But the protesters kept on coming in waves chanting, “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around”.
A number of prominent white Southern clergymen expressed disapproval of Dr. King’s nonviolent tactics in demanding their constitutional right to vote, but applauded Connor’s brutal methods to “maintain law and order.” In April 1963, Dr. King, in his “Letter From Birmingham Jail”, challenged the moral ambiguity and absurdity of their position and their skin-deep commitment to racial justice. He exposed their willful ignorance and hypocrisy before the court of public opinion. He argued that those who “warmly commended the Birmingham police force for keeping ‘order’ and ‘preventing violence’” would have come to a different conclusion had they “seen [the] dogs sinking their teeth into unarmed, nonviolent Negroes… observed their ugly and inhumane treatment of Negroes here in the city jail… watched them push and curse old Negro women and young Negro girls… slap and kick old Negro men and young boys… observe them refuse to give us food because we wanted to sing our grace together.”
In March 1965, during the “Bloody Sunday March (click here for video)”, Alabama State troopers and a posse of police-recruited Klansmen on horseback savagely brutalized civil rights marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge as the world watched in horror. Dr. King personally led the second march on “Turnaround Tuesday” with 2500 marchers in tow. Connor’s police withdrew from the bridge to let the marchers continue and avoid a confrontation. Dr. King held a short prayer session as the police looked on from the sidelines. In a dramatic display of self-control and demonstration of the principles of nonviolent resistance, Dr. King turned back and walked his marchers back to town. Within days, Dr. King led some 25 thousand marchers and successfully completed the 54-mile march from Selma to the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery with the protection of thousands of soldiers from the U.S. Army, federalized Alabama National Guardsmen, FBI agents and Federal Marshals. There he delivered a soul-stirring speech: “The end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience. … I know you are asking today, “How long will it take?” I come to say to you this afternoon however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long…”
All of the police savagery was visited upon the Selma marchers simply because they demanded their constitutional right to vote guaranteed them under the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. President Lyndon B. Johnson later declared, “The vote is the most powerful instrument ever devised by man for breaking down injustice and destroying the terrible walls which imprison men because they are different from other men.”
Dr. King understood police brutality was not limited to physical beatings and atrocities. He was acutely aware of the debilitating effects of the psychic brutality of segregation reinforced by ruthless police forces. The police were the sledgehammer and axe in the hands of Jim Crow (the metaphorical name for racial segregation laws enacted in Southern United States after the American Civil War and remained in force until 1965). They were the first line of “defense” against any efforts to desegregate public schools, public places and transportation, restaurants, restrooms and drinking fountains.
Dr. King was acutely aware of the psychic brutality of racism that destroys the very soul of a human being and leaves the body a shell of shame, fear and self-hate. He understood that a physical injury, even a bullet wound, will eventually heal, though the scar will remain as a permanent signature of the crime committed. But the victim of psychic brutality “finds himself suddenly tongue twisted and stammering to explain to [his] six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people…” The victim of psychic brutality has to “concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: ‘Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?’”
Dr. King understood the psychic brutality of being “humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading ‘white’ and ‘colored’; [having one’s] first name become “nigger,” [one’s] middle name become “boy” (however old you are) and [one’s] last name become “John,” and [one’s] wife and mother never given the respected title “Mrs.” He understood the psychic brutality of racism and what it means to be “forever fighting a degenerating sense of nobodiness”. That’s why he declared Black people could no longer wait for change because “there comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair.”
Dr. King understood the psychic injury to the dignity of man and woman will never heal unless given large doses of love (agape). Without love, the psychic brutality of racism, to paraphrase the poetic words of Langston Hughes, will only continue to “fester like a sore– / And then run? /… /… it just sags/ like a heavy load… [and in the end]… explode…”
The spark that set off the powder keg of racism came in the person of a frail 42 year-old seamstress named Rosa Parks. On December 1, 1955, Parks said she was no longer going suffer the slings and arrows of racist psychic brutality inflicted on her as she boarded the buses. She resolved to stand up to the daily humiliations, degradation and dehumanization of segregated public transportation. If she is going to pay her bus fare at the front of the bus, that’s where she was going to sit. When Parks refused to follow the bus driver’s instruction to go to the back of the bus, she stood her ground and would not back down. The police swiftly arrested and jailed her.
“A riot is the language of the unheard.” MLK
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