Do Black Lives Matter … Fifty Years Later?

BELL VIEW-An assassin took the 39-year-old Martin Luther King 50 years ago this week. King came to Memphis to support a garbage-workers’ strike – the one where strikers carried signs proclaiming, "I AM A MAN" – a simple, seemingly uncontroversial message reminiscent of “Black Lives Matter.” 

How can anyone disagree? 

And yet, 50 years later so many of us feel despair at the tenacity of racism in America. Dr. King, who said “[a] nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death,” saw war, poverty, and racism as the true enemy of truth, justice, and the American way. At the time, even the liberals shook their heads at the connection. As the New York Times noted in a 1967 editorial entitled, Dr. King's Error: “Linking these hard, complex problems will lead not to solutions but to deeper confusion.” 

The sadness so many of us feel on this 50th Anniversary of the murder of Martin Luther King is that – despite 50 years of war, increasing poverty and inequality, and mounting evidence of racism cooked into the DNA of America – we still seem so confused. 

Fifty-one years ago, Martin Luther King marched in my old Chicago neighborhood, and was met with bricks, rocks, knives, and swastikas. After that demonstration, Dr. King said, "I have seen many demonstrations in the South, but I have never seen anything so hostile and so hateful as I've seen here today." Is this what we mean when we call Chicago the most American city in America? Can we still be fighting the same fights fifty years after the assassination of Martin Luther King? Can a statement as self-evident as “black lives matter” still rouse indignation in ordinary white people? Are American schools still segregated, if not by law, then in fact? Are immigrants de-humanized, wars waged for profit, and children gunned down in the streets and schools of America? 

And can a demagogue ride the wave of white anger to the very mountaintop of power? 

Fifty years ago this week, Robert Kennedy stood on the back of a flatbed truck in Indianapolis and quoted the words of the ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus: “Even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.” Cities all across America erupted in violence that night – but Indianapolis stayed peaceful.  

The pain I feel is different from the pain inflicted upon the suffering and the vulnerable. I – and my family – have benefitted greatly from the fruits of white supremacy. I should be grateful – and, to tell the truth, I am. I don’t wish a life of deprivation on my children – a trait I share with every other person on Earth. But the pain I feel today arises out of a deep sense of loss, and not just for the people and the children of those less fortunate than me, but for myself and my own children. How much better of a world could we have left for ourselves and our own children if only we had listened a little more carefully – and really taken to heart – the words of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy? 

The election of Donald Trump is not something that suddenly opened my eyes to persistence of racism in America. But the ugliness of Trump and his supporters “falls drop by drop upon the heart” like a poison that leads only to despair, not wisdom. Maybe 50 years is too short a time for Aeschylus’s prescription to take hold – or maybe we’ve just grown immune to “the awful grace of God.” 

All I can say is God help us. 

(David Bell is a writer, attorney, former president of the East Hollywood Neighborhood Council and writes for CityWatch.) Prepped for City Watch by Linda Abrams.