A “repast” is a gathering and meal that occurs in a church or home after a funeral. Family members, who have come together, often from far away, mourn the death and celebrate the life of a deceased relative, while also taking the opportunity to reconnect and catch up on current affairs. In the African-American tradition, the culturally distinctive question of where do we go from here transcends our grief and revelry. The 50th anniversary of the death of the monumental civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. is a repast of sorts. Members of the global community who are bonded by King’s work are connecting on April 4 in their homes, businesses, and on social media, taking stock of Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy and its meaning in our personal lives.
I don’t know what attendees of King’s repast talked about, but I know that it can’t be that dissimilar to what members of the African-American community, seemingly in a perpetual repast, are discussing today. Innocent black men and women are still being assassinated, many times at the hands of police. So where do we go from here?
King would have wanted federal legislation aimed at ending state-sanctioned killings.
Most of us know that King’s efforts led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, outlawing discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, as well as the Voting Rights Act of 1965, prohibiting voting discrimination. His death inspired the Civil Rights Act of 1968, commonly referred to as the Fair Housing Act of 1968, prohibiting housing discrimination. King believed in federal policy as a mechanism to fight discrimination and bigotry. If he was alive today, King would have sought federal legislation that prohibited extrajudicial murder stemming from unconscious bias–ingrained stereotypes and automatic associations of a particular group–and outright racism.
African-Americans are just leaving the repast of unarmed black man Stephon Clark, 22, shot eight times last month by police officers who believed his cell phone was a gun. Last week, the Baton Rouge Police Department released body camera footage that showed an antagonistic Blane Salamoni, then a BRPD officer, shoot Alton Sterling six times, using profane and insulting language during and after the process of killing him. African-Americans hear echoes of the fatal shots that killed King in the footage of these recent deaths.
King’s words explain that we should not untangle racism into discrete strands.
“With each new name, we’ve learned their unique personal histories and debated different accounts of what might have happened in each instance,” Alexis McGill Johnson wrote in a study on unconscious bias published by the research organization the Perception Institute. “Mostly, we have mourned the eerily familiar similarity in each of their tragic deaths: how black people, particularly men and boys, are perceived is inherently linked to their survival. Perception can mean the difference between life and death.”
In her analysis of 2012 data, Dara Lind of the news outlet Vox found that black people accounted for 31 percent of victims killed my police and 39 percent of people killed while not attacking, even though blacks made up just 13 percent of the U.S. population. Police officers rarely face trial for shooting deaths. Convictions are even less likely.
Extended family members at Clark’s figurative repast valued King’s life the same as we cherished the life of slain black teenager Trayvon Martin. The still photos of King laying in his blood on the Lorraine Hotel balcony in Memphis conjures the same emotions as the video of police killing 12-year-old Tamir Rice. Advancements in cell phone technology and cameras simply validate what African-Americans have long known: black lives are devalued. King would not want us to separate the actions of a racist vigilante from a cop who only sees a black man as a threat, especially when the end results are the same. Although King’s convicted killer, James Earl Ray, wasn’t an agent of the state, he shared the same unconscious biases and/or explicitly racist views that lead to police killings, mass incarceration, housing discrimination, pay disparities, and underfunded schools.
In a meeting with the staff of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1968, King said: “When asking Negroes to abide by the law, let us also declare that the white man does not abide by the law. Day in and day out he violates welfare laws to deprive the poor of their meager allotments. He flagrantly violates building codes and housing regulations. His police forces are the ultimate mockery of law.”
King’s words explain that we should not untangle racism into discrete strands. The two-headed monster of implicit bias and unequivocal racism together destroy too many areas of our lives. But if the people who are charged with protecting community members with deadly force if needed can’t be held to the highest standards, then how are we going to protect the black woman hotel worker from the bigoted manager? If a cop can kill with impunity, who’s to say vigilantes can’t intimidate black voters on their way to the booth?
If his life was not taken, King would have marched today shouting “black lives matter” for federal legislation that would hold police accountable for killing unarmed, innocent people as a result of racial bias and profiling. So on this 50th anniversary of King’s death, we owe the civil rights visionary our own persistent, brave efforts to move out of our long-lasting repast to advance policies that will hold the people we trust with our lives accountable for unjustly taking them.