The message holds water more than half a century later. America is still gripped by unprecedented level of unrest resulting from a sad and long history of racial inequality.
Dr. King predicted that as America postponed justice, it could only expect recurrences of violence and riots.
Americans around the country have been protesting the death of George Floyd, a 46-year-old black man who died after a white police officer pressed his knee into his neck for more than eight minutes late last month.
Floyd’s death has revived the debate about being a black in America. The unrest is against a backdrop of depression, deprivation and deep inequality.
The sheer scale of the protests– breaking curfews and defying National Guard troops – suggests that Floyd’s death is already proving a defining moment in America’s racial politics.
‘No Justice, no peace!’
“There will be no peace until there is justice. It’s another very simple chant from the streets, but it’s as fitting today as it has ever been: no justice no peace,” political commentator and activist Daniel Patrick Welch told Press TV’s “We the People” program.
Police brutality against African Americans has become a pandemic. The high-profile deaths of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown and Walter Scott at the hands of police have helped spur and strengthen the Black Lives Matter movement.
Video footage, in the cases of Garner, Scott and Floyd, revealed to the world the unconscionable brutality with which their lives were stolen from them.
Anti-racist protests continue to spread nationwide, leading to calls to defund police departments and take down Confederate statues.
President Donald Trump, however, has dismissed the protesters as lawless rioters and anarchists who should be removed from the streets by force.
That characterization only misses the bigger picture. It is a misrepresentation of what has been a mass expression of revulsion and fury.
The protests highlight centuries of social, political and economic oppression of African Americans. Some white people acknowledge that they also need to step up and fight for racial equality in America.
A 400-year-history of police brutality
Tensions between law enforcement and blacks have existed for nearly 400 years. Historians say the root cause of police brutality is in the origins of policing in the country. America was founded on the genocide of natives and theft of their lands, and built on the backs of Africans brought to the “Land of the Slaves.”
Across the country, blacks lived in fear of white militias armed with weapons, who monitored their every move, attacked them and killed them for the slightest provocation. They would come to be known as “slave patrols.” These organized armed white men were the first police force in America.
The slave patrols laid the foundation for centuries of violent and racist behavior toward black Americans. After the abolition of slavery in 1865 toward the end of the Civil War, slave patrols were replaced by modern police departments. However, the deep-rooted racist mindset continued to dominate the police force.
Soon Congress passed a battery of racist laws to govern the lives of blacks who were now supposedly free. Whenever black Americans protested against segregation and other racist practices, law enforcement officials were often called in.
“The entire development of the political system, the relationships between classes – groups of people and different waves of immigration – the whole thing is about white supremacy,” Welch said.
Decades of legalized racial discrimination led to a massive revolt by blacks in the late 1940s, known as the Civil Rights movement, which continued until the late 1960s. As the movement grew in size and influence, many of its leaders were either assassinated or thrown in jail.
A new Jim Crow replaces the old one
Soon a system of harsh policing, punitive welfare and mass incarceration replaced the old Jim Crow that had just been scrapped.
“As a system, you couldn’t just let it go. You had to begin a new system of Jim Crow which was the establishment of the black codes and basically re-instituting slavery by different means,” Welch said.
“After the Civil Rights Movement, you have another massive shift, but the result is that there is a new Jim Crow and that is the mass incarcerations of [African Americans],” he explained.
Today, for millions of African Americans across the United States “the Promised Land” is yet to materialize. They often live in the poorest areas and suffer the highest rates of unemployment.
Latest data show that as US businesses reopen following coronavirus-related shutdowns, black people are once again being left out.
African Americans have long outnumbered whites in US prisons, even though they make up just 12 percent of the total population. They also receive longer and harsher sentences for the same crimes.
As evident by the death of George Floyd, blacks are more likely to be killed by police in routine interactions.
To chant that Black Lives Matter is not just a demand that they are not taken, but to insist that they are equally valued. Until that happens, America will continue to see more riots and unrest.
Nixon won a law-and-order election, Trump may not!
President Trump, whose polling numbers have plunged, is trying to frame himself as a law-and-order candidate for the November election.
Richard Nixon won the presidency on the same platform in 1968, as the country was engulfed in unprecedented riots and violence.
American politics, on the right, has since been shaped by Nixon’s appeal to white men who resented the Civil Rights Movement.
Republican leaders went on to weaponize racism to remain in power, a strategy deployed by Trump from day one.
But it is not 1968. Surveys show that voters approve of the protests and strongly disapprove of Trump’s response. According to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal, four in five registered voters in a new poll feel “things in the country are out of control.”
“When Nixon was running for president in 1968, he was not the incumbent, he was running to become the president. Mr. Trump is the incumbent and as an incumbent, he has a record and that record is despised by many,” Dr. Gerald Horne, historian and author from North Carolina, told “We the People.”
President Trump’s call to dominate the streets has brought out a barrage of criticism from current and former military leaders, including former Defense Secretary James Mattis and former Chief of Staff John Kelly.
Republican leaders have also found themselves struggling whether to stay loyal to the party or break with the president. Massachusetts Senator Mitt Romney and former Secretary of State Collin Powel have already said they will not vote for Trump this fall.
Overall, more than 280 former senior American diplomats and military leaders have condemned Trump over his approach to the military.
A number of current and former lawmakers have also broken with Trump. The president could expect even more defections as the election draws closer. How will this play out in November?
“There is a very significant and profound split at the top of the national security establishment of the United States concerning Mr. Trump,” Dr. Horne said.
Images of US police officers using armored vehicles, firing tear gas and flash grenades to disperse protesters have prompted shock around the world.
The militarization of the US police, which experts say stems from years of military adventurism abroad, has turned American streets into literal war zones.
More than $5 billion in surplus military equipment tied to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have been distributed to law enforcement agencies across the US. Demands to “defund” the militarized police are being chanted by protesters throughout America.
But reform would be impossible without also challenging the profit motive that drives US aggression overseas.
“If the United States is allowed to run amok overseas — in Iraq, in Syria and elsewhere– inevitably the US government will run amok at home,” Dr. Horne said.
As long as Americans allow their government to devalue human lives elsewhere, they can only expect them to do the same at home.
The case of George Floyd has exposed the US to charges of hypocrisy from historic allies like the European Union, human rights groups and rivals such as China and Russia.
The rest of the world is paying attention to the turmoil in America and a president who has pledged military retribution against his fellow citizens.
The US government has terrorized so many countries for so long. Now the chickens have come home to roost. Millions of Americans are out on the streets, demanding change. Will America listen?