Looking at how the American state and politicians reacted to the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968 and comparing that to what has happened since the killing of George Floyd in 2020 is, frankly, depressing.
Far from lessons not being learned – we seem to have actually gone backwards!
Comparing Martin Luther King and George Floyd aftermaths
In my large collection of magazines is a copy of Life from 19 April 1968. The front cover is dominated by a moving image of Coretta Scott King – widow of the assassinated Martin Luther King – at his funeral service. Reading the article was a grim reminder following the killing of George Floyd of how racism remains an American problem after 50 years.
On 29 March 1968, Martin Luther King was shot by James Earl Ray on a motel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee. President Lyndon Johnson showed a lot more tact than President Donald Trump. He ordered a day of national mourning and the Vice-President Hubert Humphrey attended his funeral.
Riots followed both the Martin Luther King and George Floyd deaths
Nevertheless, there are grim parallels with the George Floyd killing. In the days that followed King’s assassination, there was a wave of riots in Washington, Baltimore, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati and Kansas City. This wasn’t in any way welcomed by the King family and as with this year’s rioting, it was stores in mainly black neighbourhoods that were torched.
What is shocking with the riots after the death of Martin Luther King compared to what has happened after the killing of George Floyd – was the scale of riot fatalities in 1968. A total of 39 people, mainly African Americans, were killed in a week.
But the magazine (which you can see me holding below) notes in an almost casual way:
…but this was a surprisingly low number considering the scale of the unrest. In Detroit alone last year 43 people died in five days…Life magazine – 19 April 1968
That’s a reference to the 1967 Detroit race riots that were symptomatic of the city’s long, slow industrial decline through the next two decades. Police tactics in the 1967 Detroit riots had been along lines that President Trump seems to endorse. Thousands of rounds were fired by what Life called “trigger happy police and National Guardsmen”.
In 1968, they reduced the number of rounds fired significantly – though the death toll was still pretty high.
Political leaders acted swiftly after Martin Luther King
Politicians in the aftermath of King’s death tried to move swiftly to stop “radicals” taking advantage of the situation. The Life article describes how the Mayor of New York, John Lindsay, went on a walkabout in Harlem on the night King was killed (pictured below – photo courtesy of Life magazine). He also worked with credible community leaders to calm things down.
As with the George Floyd riots – there was the looting in the Martin Luther King disturbances. The New York Police Commissioner Howard Leary noted that 60% of the looters were under sixteen years of age. Nevertheless he was pressed on what more hadn’t been done to protect private property. Exasperated, he retorted:
What are we supposed to do, shoot the next Martin Luther King?Life magazine – 19 April 1968
Compare Presidents Johnson and Trump
President Johnson – a man often written off because of Vietnam – had an impressive record compared to other presidents on shoving civil rights legislation through a less than sympathetic Congress. In the days that followed the death of King, he got a Civil Rights bill through the House of Representatives and signed it into law.
That law made it illegal to refuse to sell a home to somebody just because they were black. Johnson also reached out to city mayors and invited some to the White House. What a contrast to the name calling after George Floyd and the Coronavirus between the White House and governors and mayors today.