A Martin Luther King Day Reminder on Genuine Humanity

First a question:  If Martin Luther King were alive today, would he be more likely to agree with the anthem that black lives matter, or with the view that all lives matter?

I don’t think it’s a close question.  The whole point of the civil rights movement was equality.  And in the days of Dr. King, no one thought “equality” meant “equality of outcomes”  —  which is what the gossamer word “equity” is trying to put over on us today (albeit typically in the disguise of intentionally opaque academic gibberish).  “Equality” meant equal standing before the law, and an equal chance at success and living a peaceful life.

Is that what black people are getting now, in the era of progressive prosecutors and criminal justice reform?

I recently saw a chart that gives the answer in one city, Chicago, with as liberal a  mayor and city administration as there is to be found.  Here it is:


This is a tragedy and a disgrace.  The last two years’ surge in murder has grossly disproportionately burdened black people, while the white murder rate has remained about what it was before (and much, much lower than the black murder rate).

The first obligation of government is to protect the lives and physical safety of its citizens.  The story in Chicago is probably worse than most, but similar if slightly less ghastly stories are being told in Philadelphia, Baltimore and other “progressive” strongholds from coast to coast.  Black people are far less safe than they had been.  Overall in this country, blacks are about 12% or 13% of the population, but 54% of the murder victims.

This would be reprehensible under any circumstances, but is particularly reprehensible because we know how to do better, and only recently  —  for an entire generation up until eight years ago  —  we were in fact doing better, much better.  The murder rate was cut by more than half from 1991 to 2014, and blacks were the primary beneficiaries of this massive improvement.  See the statistics compiled here (which are bad enough even while missing the startling increases in murder in 2020 and 2021).

What were we doing in the era of declining murder that we’ve stopped doing now?  Hiring more police rather than defunding them; supporting the police rather than engaging in grandstanding prosecutions (see, e.g., the Freddy Gray indictments); engaging in more proactive policing rather than bake sales and kumbaya hand-holding; and understanding that incarceration for violent criminals is the answer not the problem.

If we are to give black people a fair shake, an equal chance not merely at dignity but at life itself  —  in other words, if we are to believe that black lives actually do matter as a matter of sober, on-the-ground criminal justice policy rather than woke sloganeering  —  we already know the answer.   In the name of the genuine humanity we celebrate on Martin Luther King Day, it’s time to restore it.

3 Responses

  1. decencyevolves says:

    This post is ahistorical in a way that misconstrues Martin Luther King, what he stood for and what his legacy meant. You are old enough to have lived through the 1960s, so this history shouldn’t surprise you. The demonstrations and unrest of the 1960s were far more violent than the BLM protests.

    “ Research has found that the 2020 protests were overwhelmingly peaceful….political scientists Erica Chenoweth and Jeremy Pressman reported that their Crowd Counting Consortium (CCC) found that less than 4 percent of the summer’s protests involved property damage while 1 percent involved police injuries. Other data collections similarly found that 95 percent were peaceful.
 How does this compare to civil rights era protests? Our research finds that on every measure available, last year’s BLM protests were more peaceful and less confrontational…. During eight years of civil rights protests [from 1960 to 1968], 11 percent of the 2,681 events contained property damage. By contrast, during the 12,839 racial justice protests in 2020, only 4 percent included property damage.
 Further, police were injured in 6 percent of the civil rights movement’s protests, but police were reported injured in only 2 percent of the 2020 protests.”


    And how did Martin Luther King respond to the sometimes violent unrest of the era? By criticizing police brutality and focusing on the root causes of events like the Watts riots:

    “Framing northern racism as structural and institutional, not simply a matter of individual racist cops or private discrimination, King called out the pattern of police brutality and segregation in northern cities before the uprisings of the 1960s as well as after—and he was roundly criticized for it by political leaders and citizens, as were other activists of the time. He described ‘the total pattern of economic exploitation under which Negroes suffer’ in northern cities as a ‘system of internal colonialism’ where police and the courts acted as ‘enforcers.’…. In July 1964, the police killing of a 15-year-old Black student, James Powell, sparked a six-day uprising in Harlem. New York City’s mayor, Robert Wagner, invited King to come to town, hoping he would ease tensions between residents and city leaders. But King didn’t play by the mayor’s script. He first went to Harlem to meet with local leaders who’d been decrying issues of police brutality, housing, and school segregation in the city for years, and then had four unsuccessful meetings over three days with Wagner. King made clear that ‘profound and basic changes’ related to jobs, housing, schools, and police would be essential to avoid further uprisings. He criticized the police commissioner, Michael Murphy, for having ‘little understanding of the urgency of the situation’ and for being ‘unresponsive to either the demands or the aspirations’ of Black people, and called for the suspension of the officer who’d shot Powell. King was nearly run out of town by Wagner and Murphy when he dared to suggest that the police needed oversight and the city would benefit from a civilian board dedicated to that task…. Then, two weeks later, after Black people rose up in Rochester following another incident of police abuse, King spoke out about the conditions that had produced these two uprisings. Criticizing the nation’s ‘shallow rhetoric condemning lawlessness,’ he called for ‘an honest soul-searching analysis and evaluation of the environmental causes which have spawned the riots.’ Over and over, King echoed local activists in calling on public officials to tackle housing and school segregation, job discrimination, and police brutality—the tinder that led to these uprisings.

    The following year, on August 11, 1965, police in South L.A. pulled over Marquette Frye, a 21-year-old Black man, for drunk driving. The arrest became violent—and Watts erupted in six days of rebellion. By the end, 34 people were dead and more than 1,000 were injured. White Americans were shocked at Black anger, but King and many L.A. activists argued that this was a willful surprise. Black Angelenos had been highlighting the patterns of police brutality, housing and school segregation, and job exclusion in the city for years, and, as King saw it, political leaders kept brushing them off. He decried the violence, and laid its cause at the government’s feet, noting the lack of racial progress in cities like L.A. He wrote that ‘at a time when the Negro’s aspirations were at a peak, his actual conditions of employment, education, and housing were worsening.’

    As the uprising subsided, he traveled to L.A. to assess the situation. In a contentious three-hour session with the mayor and the police chief, King highlighted the need for oversight of the police and called for a civilian complaint-review board, as he had in New York a year earlier. And like in New York, the suggestion was angrily shot down by the police chief, William Parker. King also reiterated Black Angelenos’ long-standing demands for Parker’s resignation. Mayor Sam Yorty complained of ‘unfounded charges of police brutality’ and accused King of advocating Black ‘lawlessness.’ He said (white) Los Angeles would not stand for Parker’s resignation.

    Growing angry, King criticized the mayor for being ‘insensitive to social revolution’ and made clear that overlooking police abuses or scapegoating an isolated ‘criminal element’ was a dangerous fantasy. Parker and Yorty refused to let King meet with jailed rioters, and Yorty later told reporters that King’s visit was ‘a great disservice to the people of Los Angeles and to the nation’ and said that King ‘shouldn’t have come here.’ King received many letters from white people angry at him about the rebellion and telling him he was playing into ‘Communists’ tactics in crying ‘Police Brutalities.’

    In contextualizing the uprisings of the mid-1960s, King was clear: ‘The policymakers of the white society have caused the darkness.’ King reframed the issue of criminality, moving the focus from Black behavior to white illegality and state action, which had produced northern ‘ghettos’: ‘When we ask Negroes to abide by the law, let us also demand that the white man abide by law in the ghettos. Day-in and day-out … he flagrantly violates building codes and regulations; his police make a mockery of law; and he violates laws on equal employment and education and the provisions for civic services.’ His police. King made clear that the police were not there to protect or serve Black residents but functioned as a mechanism of control and inequality.”

    Three months later, King addressed white shock over the Watts uprising in an article in the Saturday Review, zeroing in on the acceptance of police brutality in the North: “As the nation, Negro and white, trembled with outrage at police brutality in the South, police misconduct in the North was rationalized, tolerated, and usually denied.” King was clear that this pattern of police brutality had been evident long before the uprising—and the movements that had grown out of it—but public attention, in particular the media’s attention, focused on the South. Black northerners, in contrast with Black southerners, were blamed for their unruly behaviors, which then necessitated strong-arm policing while patterns of police brutality were repeatedly denied or swept under the rug. Indeed, a year and a half earlier, in The Nation, King had described “the most tragic and widespread violations” of police brutality: “For many white Americans in the North there is little comprehension of the grossness of police behavior and its wide practice.”


    That was the real Martin Luther King, Jr., and the notion that he would have responded to police brutality in 2020 by denouncing Black Lives Matter is a right wing fantasy.

    • C&C’s comment policy requires commenters to use their real names. I won’t delete this comment because Bill’s reply requires it for context, but no more will be allowed from this commenter under this or any other pseudonym.

  2. Bill Otis says:

    decencyevolves —

    This post is about the humanity vel non of a criminal justice system increasingly infected with what is comically called “reform,” and with “progressive prosecutors,” who tolerate a gargantuan increase in the murder of blacks while the murder rate for whites remains stable. It also asks whether that kind of difference, a difference grossly harmful to blacks, is consistent with the lessons of Martin Luther King Day.

    You seem to talk all around that question without actually answering it. Specifically, you write (or quote the writings of others) about BLM riots, which you (like many others) characterize as mostly peaceful; and then devote most of your energy to the Atlantic’s discussion of events of the mid-1960’s, when neither criminal justice “reform” in its present incarnation, nor “progressive prosecutors,” had ever been heard of — and lay decades in the future.

    So let me try to re-focus by again asking the questions my post actually raises.

    First, I asked whether, if Martin Luther King were alive today, would he be more likely to agree with the anthem that black lives matter, or with the view that all lives matter?

    Which would you say?

    I then pointed to a chart showing the black homicides in Chicago have skyrocketed in the era of criminal justice “reform” and progressive prosecutors like Chicago’s Kim Foxx. This is the case while the number of white homicides has remained stable.

    Do you think this wildly disparate state of affairs is consistent with, or instead undermines, King’s vision of a fairer and more nearly equal America?

    I then said that we had done much better at preserving and protecting black lives in the recent past, when, instead of progressive policies, we followed more traditional practices such has hiring more police, engaging in more proactive policing, and increasing our use of incarceration to incapacitate violent predators (on both blacks and whites) by keeping them away from civil society.

    Do you disagree with that? Specifically, do you disagree that we dramatically reduced violent crime against blacks and whites in the period 1991 – 2014, but have now, in this more “progressive” era, given back large swaths of the progress we made? If you do, what data support your disagreement?