It was 44 years ago today that Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed while standing on a balcony at a motel in Memphis, Tennessee.
His assassination came in the midst of a trip he took to support Black sanitation workers who had been on strike for nearly a month. The workers were seeking higher wages and better treatment. And the civil rights leader, in true King fashion, brandished his longstanding commitment to non-violent confrontation in that final Memphis journey.
King’s commitment to non-violent confrontation was not just a reflection of a deep moral conviction. As much as anything, it was also a reflection of a shrewd strategy to draw attention — from the media, politicians and the courts — to injustice. It was his desire to appeal to the conscience of America — often in dramatic fashion — to place on display the fact that the nation had not lived up to its obligation to people of color.
Despite his passion and his role as a champion of nonviolence, King was killed in cold blood.
His untimely death is a legacy that has continued all the way to 2012, most dramatically in the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.
In a world of iPhones, Facebook and Twitter, a world where television networks can transmit images from any country to a global audience within seconds; a world where African-Americans have served as Supreme Court judges, secretaries of state and even as president of the United States, progress has certainly been achieved on many fronts in the United States.
But the Trayvon Martin killing demonstrates firmly that not much has changed since the era of Martin Luther King’s shooting. Violence is still a staple of American life and racial violence has not abated significantly. The killing of Trayvon, with its echoes of the death of Emmitt Till a generation ago, reveals the nagging underside of American racial relations.
It is evident that the nation remains divided on issues related to race. There are Americans — Republican presidential candidates among them — who are reluctant to acknowledge that there is an unmistakable racial dimension to the shooting of the 17-year-old teenager. Similarly, in King’s era, there were those who couldn’t imagine that race played a role in the disparities between Black and white Americans.
If there is a silver lining, it can be found in how King's legacy has lived on in the non-violent swell of protest marches around the country in the Trayvon case. They are designed, as were the marches in the civil rights era, to once again shake the conscience of the country, to make vivid the tragedy of racial profiling, stop-and-frisk police practices and, ultimately, the cheapness through which young Black male life is often viewed.
If there is any fitting legacy to honor King, it would be in the ability of the protesters to shake the powers of the country not only to arrest Trayvon's shooter, but more pointedly, to scale back a culture of ready access to firearms and to come to the understanding that the lives of young Black and Latino men are valuable and that they should be respected.
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(Photo: Vernon Matthews/Commercial Appeal /Landov)
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