Black American Trauma: From the Death of Dr. King to George Floyd and Beyond

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – who was assassinated on April 4, 1968, in Memphis, Tenn., while helping striking sanitation workers – left a deep and lasting impact on America through his activism and his advocacy, his philosophy of nonviolent civil disobedience, and his radical vision of a just society free from racism, militarism, and poverty.

And although we tend to focus on the impact of his life’s work, rarely do we focus on the effect of Dr. King’s death on the community – specifically the ongoing trauma of Black America and the impact on the movement for Black lives.

Black America mourned King with grief, anger, hopelessness, and a range of emotions. His assassination altered the lives and psychology of Black people and arguably continues to impact the community today.

King’s assassination was an example of a shattering experience that propelled Black people into becoming more politically active and into searching for a deeper understanding of the Black Power movement,” Kevin Cokley wrote in the Dallas Morning News, calling his death the inheritance of current social movements.

“Black people realized that being patient and trusting the country to eventually do right by Black folks was a dream at risk of being permanently deferred. Blacks did not have the luxury of sitting on the sidelines in the pursuit of civil rights. For many, King’s assassination aroused what had been a sometimes muted yet simmering anger fueled by injustice toward Black Americans,” Cokley added.

The death of the civil rights leader sparked the urban rebellions of 1968, although there were other factors at play, such as unemployment, housing segregation, and police brutality and harassment – the factors of Black grievance that incited the uprisings across America the year before. Close to 50,000 federal troops occupied American cities in this, the largest unrest of the 1960s, where 39 people were killed and 3,500 were injured.

Further, the loss of Dr. King was a devastating blow to the civil rights movement, raising questions about the effectiveness of nonviolence. On the night of the assassination, Floyd McKissick, director of the Congress of Racial Equality, proclaimed that nonviolence was a “dead philosophy” because white racists killed it.

“When white America killed Dr. King last night, she declared war on us. It would have been better if she had killed Rap Brown … or Stokely Carmichael,” said Black Power activist Stokely Carmichael, later known as Kwame Ture. “But when she killed Dr. King, she lost it … He was the one man in our race who was trying to teach our people to have love, compassion, and mercy for white people.”

The Civil Rights Movement and movement for Black lives were both triggered by Black murders, notes Aldon Morris, Leon Forrest Professor of Sociology and African American Studies at Northwestern University and president of the American Sociological Association. Sustained protests resulted from the systemic wounds of Jim Crow segregation, not unlike the present-day devaluation of Black people that gave birth to the Black Lives Matter movement.

“A more pertinent lesson was that overreliance on one or more charismatic leaders made a movement vulnerable to decapitation,” said Morris. “Similar assaults on leaders of social movements and centralized command structures around the world have convinced the organizers of more recent movements, such as the Occupy movement against economic inequality and BLM, to eschew centralized governance structures for loose, decentralized ones.”

“Many are now hearing for the first time King’s quote that ‘a riot is the language of the unheard,’” said Omid Safi, professor of Islamic Studies at Duke University, who noted King’s position during social unrest was far from moderate. After all, King said, “Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed,” and he expressed his disappointment with white moderates he viewed as more of an impediment to Black progress than the Ku Klux Klan.

“The question today is whether the white liberal (and their allies) will overcome their own privilege and listen to the rage of the Black folk who are shouting that they too cannot breathe,” Safi added.

Understanding Black America’s response to King’s assassination requires a grasp of the role of trauma in the Black community. Kidnapped from our homes and sent across the Atlantic in deadly slave-ship dungeons, only to face hundreds of years of torture and enslavement in forced labor camps – followed by Jim Crow segregation and institutional racism – we suffer from intergenerational trauma linked to fatal tragedy.

And the “gruesome public spectacle” of lynching’s traumatized, Black people. White people brought their children to lynchings with picnic lunches, attended as spectators to a sporting event, and participated in the murders, and claimed Black body parts as souvenirs.

This intergenerational curse of trauma has compromised Black health over the centuries. As James Baldwin asked in Go Tell It on the Mountain, “Could a curse come down so many ages? Did it live in time, or in the moment?”

Murders of George Floyd and Black people aired on television has unearthed collective Black Trauma