The son of the Rev Martin Luther King has issued a sobering reminder about the persistence of police brutality and racist violence targeting black Americans.
Martin Luther King III spoke on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC, where his father famously laid out a vision for harmony between white and black people 57 years ago with his “I have a dream” speech.
On Friday, Mr King told thousands of people who had gathered to commemorate the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom: “We must never forget the American nightmare of racist violence exemplified when Emmett Till was murdered on this day in 1955, and the criminal justice system failed to convict his killers.
“Sixty-five years later (after 14-year-old Till’s murder in Mississippi), we still struggle for justice – demilitarising the police, dismantling mass incarceration, and declaring as determinately as we can that black lives matter.”
Even in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, many felt compelled to join civil rights advocates in Washington to highlight police and vigilante violence.
They gathered after a white police officer shot 29-year-old black man Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, last Sunday, leaving him paralysed. This event sparked demonstrations and violence that left two people dead.
As peaceful protests turned to arson and theft, naysayers of the Black Lives Matter movement issued calls for “law and order”.
The Rev Al Sharpton, whose civil rights organisation, the National Action Network, planned Friday’s commemoration, told critics: “Some say to me: ‘Rev Al, y’all ought to denounce those that get violent, those that are looting.’
“All of the families (of victims of police and vigilante violence) have denounced looting. What we haven’t heard is you denounce shooting.”
Mr Sharpton asked: “We will speak against the looting, but when will you speak against wrong police shooting?”
Mr Sharpton and Mr King stood with relatives of an ever-expanding roll call of victims: Mr Blake, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin, and Eric Garner, among others.
Mr Arbery and Mr Martin both were killed by men who pursued them with guns and whose arrests were delayed until residents protested.
“There are two systems of justice in the United States,” said Jacob Blake Sr, the father of the man whose shooting by police in Kenosha left him paralysed from the waist down.
“There’s a white system and a black system – the black system ain’t doing so well.”
And he proclaimed: “No justice, no peace!”
Philonise Floyd, the brother of George Floyd, stared out at the massive march audience and said he wished his brother had been there to see it.
Friday’s march shaped up to be the largest political gathering in Washington since the pandemic began.
Many attendees wore T-shirts of the late representative John Lewis who, until his death last month, was the last living speaker at the original March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.
That march went on to become one of the most famous political rallies in American history, and one of the largest gatherings, with more than 200,000 people in attendance.
Organisers said they intended to show the urgency for federal policing reforms, to decry racial violence, and to demand voting rights protections ahead of the November general election. A handful of satellite marches were held in South Carolina, Florida, Nevada, Utah and Colorado.
Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris, in a video, said the original rally’s conveners would be disappointed that black Americans are still marching for justice and equality under the law.
She said: “I have to believe that if they were with us today, they would share in our anger and frustration as we continue to see Black men and women slain in our streets, and left behind in our economy and justice system that has too often denied Black folks our dignity and rights.”
America is at an inflection point.— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) August 28, 2020
The calls for racial justice that sparked the March on Washington 57 years ago are ringing out again today.
As we honor the legacy of that day — let's meet this moment with the urgency and action that our heroes marched for half a century ago. pic.twitter.com/Bs0SccjnxN
Former US vice president and current Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden tweeted his support for the march.
Although President Donald Trump did not comment on the march, the Republican National Committee marked the event’s anniversary by highlighting the president’s record as a “champion for the Black community”.
Organisers of the event took temperatures as part of coronavirus protocols. They also reminded attendees to practice social distancing and wear masks throughout, although distancing was hardly maintained as the gathering grew in size.