Martin Luther King Knew: Fighting Racism Meant Fighting Police BrutalityRoundup
tags: civil rights, Martin Luther King Jr., police brutality
Jeanne Theoharis is a political-science professor at Brooklyn College and the author of The Rebellious Life of Mrs. Rosa Parks and A More Beautiful and Terrible History: The Uses and Misuses of Civil Rights History.
In a lesser-known part of his March on Washington speech, Martin Luther King Jr. proclaimed, “We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.”
Many people, upon hearing this, might assume that King was simply referring to the violence wreaked by the police department in Birmingham, Alabama, and its commissioner, Bull Connor, during the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s desegregation campaign that spring. But King understood that police brutality—like segregation—wasn’t just a southern problem.
Earlier that year, shortly after getting out of jail in Birmingham, King traveled to Los Angeles and delivered a speech to 35,000 people at Wrigley Field. The city was in the midst of a growing effort, led by groups including the NAACP and the Nation of Islam, challenging the pattern of police brutality in the city and calling for Police Chief William Parker’s resignation. L.A.’s civil-rights leaders drew parallels between Birmingham and L.A.—particularly regarding police brutality. So did King. He thanked Angelenos for their support of the Birmingham campaign but made clear that what was even more important was challenging L.A.’s system of racial injustice. “You asked me what Los Angeles can do to help us in Birmingham,” King told the audience. “The most important thing that you can do is to set Los Angeles free because you have segregation and discrimination here, and police brutality.”
In recent years, scholars have broadened the public’s understanding of King’s political concerns to go beyond segregation to include poverty, labor, global human rights, and war. But even in this more expansive context, his attention to police brutality and the structural discrimination of the North has largely been missed. (King and most Black activists of the period used the terms North and northern to encompass all regions of the U.S. outside the South—in part to highlight the shared investment white city leaders and residents from the Northeast to the Midwest to the West all had in not being the South. I follow their terminology throughout this piece and in my academic work.) At the same time, commentators across the political spectrum have tended to pit King against contemporary youth movements such as Black Lives Matter, framing King as a kind of respectability-politics-upholding southern minister who kept a distance from northern Black communities.
But from the beginnings of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) in 1957, King was clear that segregation and injustice were national, not regional, problems, and he relentlessly highlighted the “need for a liberalism in the North that is truly liberal, that believes in integration in [the northerner’s] own community as well as in the deep South.” King had observed pride among many northern white liberals for supporting the southern movement, only to see their sharp refusal to confront segregation and police brutality at home and their dismissal and demonization of local activists who did. 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.”
King had been calling attention to the issue of police brutality for years. In the September 1958 issue of Fellowship, King published an article titled “My Pilgrimage to Nonviolence,” where he wrote, “I had seen police brutality with my own eyes, and watched Negroes receive the most tragic injustice in the courts.” King himself had been at the mercy of police many times, and knew well the vulnerability and dangerous power dynamics a person under arrest can experience. In his 1964 book, Why We Can’t Wait, King characterized police injustice as a nationwide problem: “Armies of officials are clothed in uniform, invested with authority, armed with the instruments of violence and death and conditioned to believe that they can intimidate, maim or kill Negroes with the same recklessness that once motivated the slaveowner.”
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