Today’s stories of police brutality are a stark reminder that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream remains unfulfilled. Nearly 60 years ago, he proclaimed in his “I Have a Dream” speech, “We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality.”
Despite the abolishment of slavery a century prior to Dr. King’s speech, brutality against Black citizens had continued unabated. In 1895, former slave and politican Robert Smalls estimated that “[s]ince the Reconstruction times, 53,000 negroes have been killed in the South.”
According to the Smithsonian Magazine, that was a “staggering” number that, spread over 30 years, amounts to an average of 1,766 murders per year or nearly five per day across the 11 Confederate states. And the violence continued after that. In 1917, two White Houston police officers raided the home of a Black woman. She was dragged into the street as her five small children watched. When a Black soldier attempted to intervene on the woman’s behalf, he too was beaten and then arrested.
In the years since Dr. King’s speech, story after story of police brutality has gripped this nation’s conscience. From the 1991 beating of Los Angeles cab driver Rodney King, who was kicked and clubbed 56 times by four police officers, to the 2014 killing of Michael Brown, who was shot in the chest, forehead and arm by Ferguson, Missouri police officer Darren Wilson.
From the 2016 killing of Philando Castile by police officer Jeronimo Yanez after he pulled him over for a broken taillight, with his fiancée and 4-year-old daughter looking on; to the 2020 murder of George Floyd by officer Derek Chauvin, who knelt on Floyd’s neck for nine minutes and 29 seconds.
While George Floyd’s death sparked nationwide protests and calls for police reform, Time Magazine reported in May 2021 that police were continuing to kill civilians at “virtually the same rate they have for the past five years,” with the brunt of the violence still being disproportionately directed at Black people.
These stories demonstrate that there is much more left to be done to make Dr. King’s dream a reality.
Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.