RICKEY BOOKER JR.: A debt of justice

King’s concerns still resonate after more than half-century

Almost a year into a worldwide pandemic, more than 2.4 million people have died. For Black and brown communities in America, covid-19 has only exacerbated the disparities they have navigated for centuries.

The long-standing history of oppression and marginalization has led to racial inequities in everything from Black and brown people being disproportionately represented as frontline workers to those same disadvantaged communities being severely impacted by the winter snowstorm that swept across America last week. This storm left millions of people in Texas without drinking water or electricity to heat their homes in below-freezing temperatures. In a recent New York Times interview, Dr. Robert Bullard, Texas Southern professor and expert on wealth and racial disparities, stated that low-income Black and brown communities have already been hit the hardest by covid and during natural disasters, these same communities are often hit first and suffer the longest.

We are also living through a period of palpable racial unrest. In the summer of 2020, millions of Americans took to the streets to protest police brutality; global corporations issued anti-racist commitments and pledges; and candidates running for elected office -- from city council all the way to the president -- distinguished themselves by their willingness to stoke racial anxieties or try to heal them.

In his book "Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?" Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. asserts that "America owes a debt of justice which it has only begun to pay. If it loses the will to finish or slackens in its determination, history will recall its crimes and the country that would be great will lack the most indispensable element of greatness – justice."

His words from 1967 jumped off the page to me as if he were marching with the Black Lives Matter protesters in the summer heat of 2020 chanting "No Justice, No Peace." When we look at how Black Lives Matter protesters were shot with rubber bullets, beaten with batons and tear-gassed for demanding justice for the killings and excessive use of force on unarmed Black men and women, many Black Americans in 2021 not only believe that America has slackened in its will to deliver justice, but they have also seen evidence of it repeatedly.

The ways in which police officers arrested and, in some cases, used excessive force on Black Lives Matter protesters were strikingly like what Freedom Riders endured in 1961. Freedom Riders in most cases were young Black and white civil rights activists who participated in Freedom Rides to protest segregation in bus terminals. The groups were often arrested by police officers for trespassing, unlawful assembly and violating other state and local laws. They also endured horrific violence from white protestors, which drew international attention to the civil rights movement. In less than one year, the multi-racial coalition of the Freedom Riders was able to get the Interstate Commerce Commission to issue regulations prohibiting segregation. Will Black Lives Matter protestors who are from all racial backgrounds and gender identities be able to secure legislation that can begin to pay the debt of justice that Dr. King so long ago espoused?

By now, we have all seen what happened on Jan. 6 when the U.S. Capitol was desecrated, a Capitol Police officer was murdered, and hundreds of Trump supporters attempted to stop the 2020 election certification. Just one week ago we also saw how 43 senators chose to acquit the very person who stoked and fanned the flames that led to one of the worst days in U.S. history. All this affirms what so many of us already knew, which is that Lady Justice being blind is a great ideal, nonetheless history has shown that she can see very clearly and chooses to distinguish how she administers her justice.

Almost 56 years ago, Dr. King stood on the steps of the capitol in Montgomery, Ala., before 20,000 people and stated, "How long will it take ... Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."

Yes, transformative change takes time, but it does happen. After more than half a century of working to change laws, push for equity and seek full and equal citizenship, Black Americans who have endured centuries of oppression and systemic racism may not be as patient as Dr. King. Nonetheless, we all need to make space for those who have legitimate grievances regarding laws and policies that have for so long perpetuated the conditions that many live in today.

As Angela Davis recently stated in the University of Arkansas Distinguished Lectures, "The Black struggle is connected to all struggle ... when you provide justice for the least, everyone's lives improve."

The record-breaking turnout in the 2020 presidential election that secured Joe Biden the position as our nation's leader will soon show whether change is on the horizon or if America will move forward with the status quo.